A few years from now, a traveler steps off the airplane at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and boards a self-driving bus. The bus drives the traveler to a mobility hub on airport property where the traveler can pick from a number of transportation options to get into downtown.
Stepping off the self-driving bus, the traveler receives a notice on his smartphone. Sensors embedded in the roads, sidewalks and bikeways across the region have detected downtown congestion caused by heavy pedestrian activity from a music festival. With this in mind, the traveler opens an all-in-one travel app that allows him to book rides and check travel times with taxis, transportation network companies, Capital Metro’s public transit or with one of a fleet of self-driving cars.
After checking the departure times for Capital Metro’s airport shuttle, he decides to hail a self-driving car, which whisks the traveler to his hotel downtown, avoiding delays by routing itself around the areas of heavy congestion.
This is not some mundane, transit-oriented science fiction script. Rather, it’s how Austin officials think the region’s transportation grid could operate if it wins the Beyond Traffic: Smart City Challenge posed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The goal of the contest is for cities to present a viable vision for a 21st-century regional transportation network that encourages the development and adoption of self-driving cars, network vehicles, sensor-based traffic information infrastructure and other technologies DOT calls “Intelligent Transportation Systems.” The winner — Austin is one of seven finalist cities in the competition — gets a $50 million grant to begin to implement that vision.
Austin’s vision for its Smart City future is contained in a 32-page document, obtained by the Austin Business Journal, that served as the city’s application for the Smart City Challenge. In the application’s cover letter, Mayor Steve Adler outlines the central dilemma facing Austin’s transportation network.
“No U.S. city is more in need of innovation in transportation to address our most pressing challenges. Austin is a magnet for venture investment in research, tech, advanced manufacturing and the creative class,” Adler said in the letter. “Yet a huge swath of our community is struggling to pay for housing and transportation — and that’s unacceptable. People are living paycheck-to-paycheck, in car-dependent households, in sprawling areas far from jobs and opportunity.”
The document, included below this article, outlines five initiatives that the city intends to pursue to build a next-generation transportation network. The city is in the process of crafting a request for information from interested companies and organizations that may be able to help implement its vision.
• The first and most thoroughly defined initiative in the city’s application would see city and regional transportation planners begin to develop, test and deploy infrastructure, regulations and policies to deal with self-driving vehicles. The first phase of this program would see the city test automated shuttles and circulators, in partnership with Capital Metro, at ABIA to connect the terminal with a yet-to-be developed mobility hub and cell phone waiting lot. This initiative also outlines a vision for downtown, on-demand automated vehicle service for “last-mile” connections between existing transportation options and various destinations. It also outlines a vision for an urban and suburban automated car sharing program that would fill in the gaps in Austin’s existing mass transit network and a somewhat less-defined vision for using unmanned vehicles to deliver packages.
• The second initiative on the city’s application outlines a vision for increased electrification of high-milage transit vehicles such as taxis, TNCs and buses. In the application, city officials propose creating a “fleet electrification marketplace” where taxis and TNCs could connect with companies that specialize in converting vehicle fleets from fossil fuels to batteries. The document points out that some companies, such as General Motors Co. and its recent $500 million partnership with Lyft Inc., are already exploring ways to bring electric ride-hailing services at scale to Austin.
• In the third initiative, the city proposes to overhaul its traffic and congestion information infrastructure to be able to better predict, detect and adapt to changing traffic conditions. It includes programs to acquire and analyze data in real time from public and private-sector transportation services, as well as the installation of temperature and weather sensors to monitor traffic infrastructure as it responds to the whims of Mother Nature.
• The fourth initiative would create “travel access hubs.” Think of them as park-and-ride stations on steroids. The document envisions the hubs as a “one-stop shop” for transit where commuters have options to take buses, trains, taxis, self-driving cars, TNCs, shared bikes and other transportation options not yet in service.
“In the future, a strategic network of these hubs could eliminate the need for human-driven vehicles in the urban core altogether,” the document says.
• The final initiative listed in the application would see the city pilot a “one-pass” multi-modal transit smartphone app that would allow travelers to book rides and pay for multiple transit services from one account.
In addition to the core initiatives, the document also describes how the city would oversee its Smart City programs. With an eye toward political continuity, the program would be administered by a joint executive team led by the city manager, an operating board and a dedicated full-time staff.