September 29, 2022

Columbus is now America’s first smart city: What does that mean?


In 2016, the city of Columbus competed against 77 other cities in the U.S. to receive technology grants via the U.S. Smart City Challenge. Columbus ended up winning the challenge, and now is on it’s way to being a Smart City. What does that mean? What has been done so far? What can we expect in the future? All will be discussed below:


The Smart City Challenge

The Smart City Challenge was a campaign started by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2015, with the goal of helping midsize cities tackle their infrastructure and sustainability goals through innovative technological solutions. After 78 cities submitted applications detailing their logistical problems around transport, the Department of Transportation selected seven finalists to go into more detail on their specific challenges. For Columbus, that challenge was infant mortality rate. The solution to this was essentially to grant easier access for people in underprivileged communities to doctors and other healthcare providers. Some tangible steps to achieving that goal include smart traffic lights, an automated smartphone app that streamlines access to healthcare, and autonomous vehicles that communicate with each other to cut transit times and costs for lower-income neighborhoods. This proposal was chosen over the other six finalists to receive the $50 million in grants from the Department of Transportation and Vulcan, Inc. It’s been over 2 years since the grants have been awarded, though, so what has Columbus done in that time?


Columbus’s First Big Step: The Smart Columbus Operating System

The first major step in enacting this Smart City plan is The Smart Columbus Operating System.

Essentially, it is a cloud service that aggregates data and uses that data to inform businesses, people, and other entities so that they can discover better mobility solutions. In plain English, the idea is that this operating system will provide city planners and transportation companies with more data, which will allow them to solve issues regarding transportation better. We are talking less crashes on the busiest intersections, roads that are less congested because more people will be informed of efficient routes, and vehicles that communicate with each other to prevent crashes and avoid busy areas.

Other aspects of the Operating System are a unified payment system for Co-Go Bikes, COTA bus, and other ride-sharing services, smart kiosks connected to the Operating System that will tell commuters which ride-sharing service is most efficient for their commute, specialized apps that will help people with disabilities and expecting mothers access more efficient transportation, a unified parking network that will prevent congestion at large events, and autonomous vehicles for short-trips in busy areas such as Easton and the Scioto Mile, and finally a smart truck platooning system to reduce congestion at Columbus’s logistics center at Rickenbacker, which is the 10th most active logistics hub in the nation. Some examples of how the first iteration of the Smart Columbus Operating System has helped solve urban mobility problems can be found here.

Smart Columbus in 2018

So, the Smart Columbus Operating System is underway, but what tangible things are out now, and what can we expect to see going into the future?


A huge part of the Smart Columbus project is to push for the adoption of electric vehicles. Currently, there is not much of an infrastructure for all-electric vehicles here in Columbus, with most Tesla owners having to opt to install superchargers in their own homes if they wish to have a fast way to charge up. This option is simply not viable for people living in apartments or those who rent from somebody. This is where Smart Columbus comes in, awarding $170,000 in rebates this year to apartment and condominium owners who installed proper electric vehicle charging stations at their complexes. Most of these new charging stations are around various parts of Columbus proper, with one built in Grandview, and a few further out in places such as Lewis Center. Details on this part of the Smart Columbus project can be found here.

Another development in electric vehicle funding came in the form of rebates to taxi companies who switched over to electric fleets this year. The winner of this $30,000 rebate was Columbus Yellow Cab, a company that has been in service for over 90 years in Central Ohio, and one who plans on eventually electrifying its entire fleet of 175 vehicles. The first 10 in that goal were covered in 2018 thanks to the Smart Columbus grant.

The push for electric vehicles has accelerated in the Columbus private market this year, mainly thanks to an increased number of choices and the continued rollout of electric vehicle infrastructure. Shortly following the release of the Tesla Model 3, EV’s surpassed 1 percent of vehicles sold for 3 months in 2018 during the summer. This is something that might seem like a negligible statistic right now, but it shows that electric vehicle ownership may be on the rise within the next few years.


To finish off the year, Smart Columbus partnered with DriveOhio to launch the first-ever fully autonomous vehicle in the city, a smart shuttle that operates along the Scioto Mile. Visitors can use the shuttle to go along the Scioto Mile from 6am to 10pm seven days a week. Whilst this low-powered vehicle may not be as exciting as a fully autonomous Waymo van driving you through your city, it is an important first step towards a future full of autonomous electric vehicles.


A great way to see and experience some of the projects that Smart Columbus will be rolling out in the next few years is to visit the Smart Columbus Experience Center, located along the Scioto Mile and only a short driverless shuttle ride away. There you will be able to learn more about all of the plans that Smart Columbus has in store, and maybe even get your hands on a few projects.

2019 and Beyond

2018 was only the start for Smart Columbus. As with all technological endeavors, we should see things get better as time goes on and the technology matures. A huge benefit to the goal of Smart Columbus could be the introduction of 5G technology, an innovation that is supposed to connect everything from phones to cars to stoplights onto one unified network. After all is said and done, expect a more efficient, more informed, cleaner, and hopefully, safer transportation network for Columbus and Central Ohio.

Extra Reading/Sources used:–Five-Lessons-Learned-Since-the-Smart-City-Challenge/

  • Zach Ferenchak is the Managing Editor of The Chimes and a current senior studying Emerging Media with an emphasis in Public Relations. He is also heavily involved with the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA), where he is the National Vice President of Brand Engagement. Upon graduating in May 2021, Zach plans on pursuing a career in the greater communications and media industry.

One thought on “Columbus is now America’s first smart city: What does that mean?

  1. While you provide a concise overview of what’s going on…no mention of impact on the city’s very specific challenge. Has the infant mortality rate improved? (And can they point to any specific smart city improvements that have had the most impact on infant mortality? Like, I don’t see how the EV chargers are necessarily impacting infant mortality…I could be stereotyping, but I don’t see this impacting the underprivileged beyond perhaps cleaner air, etc.)

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