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How Six Major US Cities Are Revolutionizing Their Transportation Systems

Mayors from Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Columbus met to discuss their visions for renewable energy sources and the future of public transportation.

Barring a major shakeup in the US Congress, this month former Texas governor Rick Perry and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt will be confirmed as the new Secretary of Energy and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, respectively. Like most of Donald Trump's cabinet appointees, Perry and Pruitt come to their new positions with less-than-stellar approval ratings, and large, vocal opposition parties behind them.


Like it or not, though, Perry and Pruitt—together with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao—will be responsible for defending, supporting, and growing our renewable energy sources and transit infrastructure on the federal level in the coming years, at what is arguably one of the most crucial moments in environmental history. As fossil fuels continue to deplete our natural resources and negatively impact our climate, leaders from around the world are starting to seriously rethink their understanding of how cities work—and how technology works within them.

Last month, Ford gathered four mayors from across the US to discuss their visions for the "city of tomorrow," as well as how they're beginning to turn these visions into reality. "Cities today are the economic, the cultural, and the intellectual energy of our economy in this country," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, "and if you don't invest in them you're not interested in the self-interest of America."

Though no two cities are alike, the conversation between Emanuel, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan generated a some key takeaways: public transit is on the rise, and will continue to be as we shift towards a more egalitarian transportation model; road maintenance needs to be prioritized in order to make way for new technologies; and private funding is quickly becoming the way for local government to take infrastructure projects from idea to reality. Here, we look at how some of the country's most populated cities are using these tools to push towards a brighter, greener, more eco-friendly future.


Commuting Smarter

"People today see driving as something that gets in the way of their texting," joked Emanuel during this year's annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit. True or not, the point the mayor makes is clear: "Time is now what people are considering a greater value than anything else." As ridesharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Chariot continue to grow, public transportation is becoming an increasingly large priority for city governments across the US. In addition to adding more buses, trains, and subway stops—or, in Los Angeles' case an entire new metro line—public leaders are striving to create transportation that meets the needs of a young, demanding workforce.

In Chicago, that meant equipping all of the city's trains with a reliable wireless network. In 2015, the city inked a $32.5 million deal, whereby AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint paid to install, operate, and manage 4G technology in all of Chicago's trains, which in turn would generate more active use across their respective data plans. Chicago has since become the largest US public transport system with 4G in all its stations and tunnels.

Detroit's $142 million dollar Q-Line, which is scheduled to open this spring, will run along the city's Woodward Avenue corridor, which is home to 36,000 residents and 135,000 jobs. The wifi-equipped streetcar will run on a mix of wire and lithium battery power, following in the footsteps of other smart streetcar cities like Kansas City and Atlanta.


Elsewhere, the rise in smart public transportation is taking the form of city-run bike shares, which are growing in established markets and popping up in new ones. In 2016 alone, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, and Cleveland, Ohio all launched bike sharing programs, while New York's long-running Citi Bike announced it would expand to all five boroughs, probably by this year.

Likewise, 2016 saw Chicago's Divvy program pushing further into the suburbs with an $800,000 expansion. In San Francisco, Bay Area Bike Share recently announced that they'll be teaming with Ford and increasing their bike fleet ten-fold, from 700 to 7,000 in 2017.

Fixer Uppers

The story of Detroit's economic redemption has been widely reported since it began back in 2014. Less than three years after filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the city has ushered in a new generation of small businesses, along with big companies like Amazon, Adient, and Little Caesar's, bringing with them thousands of jobs and an increasingly large millennial constituency. But, as Mayor Mike Duggan is quick to point out, fixing Detroit's unemployment problem was only half the battle.

Of the many improvements undertaken during his tenure, one of Duggan's biggest success stories has been Detroit's new LED streetlights. "Half of the city's street lights were out when I came into office," Duggan recalls. "Out of necessity, we put in 65,000 LED streetlights in the last three years, which makes Detroit the largest city in America with 100% LED lighting. And these LED lights aren't just lights—they're computers with all kinds of applications that attached to them. You can spot potholes, black ice, traffic accidents, you can communicate to cars."


Funding the Future

Skeptics of the lush, clean, and traffic-free cities that companies like Ford are championing tend to point out one major flaw in the plan: money. Automated cars, smart traffic signals, and fully integrated public transportation requires pristine roads and state-of-the-art monitoring systems in order to work. Building and rehabbing that much infrastructure would require a huge increase in state and federal spending at a time when the federal government is trying to crawl out of an $18.6 trillion debt.

This, city officials say, is where the private sector comes in. "The folks that I work for and with are all looking for regional approaches and public-private partnerships," says Columbus, Ohio Mayor Andrew Ginther. In Chicago, Emanuel has heavily relied on TIF programs to fund projects like the recent $2.5 million rebuild of the Red Line. "It's basically a infrastructure bank in embryonic stages. You can leverage private sector money and you don't need any help from the federal government," he says.

"We have to find different modes and ways to build," adds Ginther, whose city won the Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge last year. Columbus's winning vision for its new transportation system earned the city up to $40 million from the DoT and $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Alan's Vulcan Inc., as well as an additional $90 million from local Ohio businesses. In California, the Presidio Parkway stands as the state's first transportation project developed through a public-private-partnership, or P3—but it's certainly nothing new. P3s, experts say, are fast becoming the financing mode of choice for local infrastructure projects across the US. Whether or not this signals the slow death of federal financing for local projects is still to be determined, but until then, it's offering up another viable option for local officials.

"City government is the government that's most immediate and intimate to how people live their lives," says Emanuel. "Washington is Disneyland on the Potomac, and it's going to get more like it in the next four years… Train stations, parks, playgrounds, neighborhood libraries—that's how people think of government that touches their lives. It's a great opportunity for us, and it opens up a great opportunity for people to tell us what they think of what we're doing."

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