Why we are catalyzing a more efficient and sustainable approach to urban transportation

As forest fires intensify, storms multiply, icecaps melt and sea levels continue to rise, the toll of climate change becomes more apparent. But as diffuse as these challenges may be, the solutions are tangible and specific. One solution is to modernize our transportation networks, which currently generate more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, I’m excited to report that Columbus, Ohio has won the Smart City Challenge, a $50 million competition that the U.S. Department of Transportation and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., collaborated on to catalyze a more efficient and sustainable approach to urban transportation.

Columbus was one of 78 cities that submitted proposals to transform their transportation networks. Once implemented, its plan will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and serve as a model for other cities seeking to improve their own efficiency, sustainability and quality of life.

Chosen from seven finalists including Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco, Columbus laid out an especially comprehensive long-term plan to transform its transportation system and significantly reduce GHG emissions from its electricity supply. Their plan includes the expansion of its municipal electric vehicle (EV) fleet and integrating smart sensor data throughout the region to improve traffic, reduce accidents and slash emissions from all vehicles. The city was also able to secure a commitment from CEOs of the city’s top 50+ businesses and institutions to purchase and drive electric vehicles, and to install EV charging stations for employees. And, they brought in important private sector partners like American Electric Power to decarbonize their power grid.

To help facilitate this transition, our team at Vulcan will provide Columbus with technical support and $10 million.

Creatively reengineering our urban transportation networks is vital if we hope to avoid the worst consequences of global warming and continue to thrive in the future. Given all the good ideas from cities in the Smart City Challenge, I’m confident we can do both.

For example, as one element of a comprehensive plan, San Francisco proposed creating a network of shared, self-driving cars to reduce congestion and inspire people to reimagine the potential of public transit.

In Austin, which is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent over the next 35 years, city officials are already offering residents unlimited access to municipal EV charging stations for a flat fee of $4.17 per month.

We hope that cities across the country and around the world — not just those that competed — will draw from and adapt Smart City ideas

Kansas City, a major rail hub and the location of distribution facilities for several major retailers, is pioneering the use of electric freight trucks at their BNSF intermodal site.

Portland leaders proposed a partnership with manufacturers to establish an EV showcase dedicated to electric vehicles, to help educate more consumers about these innovative transportation options.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh proposed installing a series of solar-powered EV charging stations, demonstrating carbon-free electricity generation in the heart of coal country.

And in Denver, once the oil capital of the Mountain West, leaders have established effective regulatory and legislative frameworks to drive smart growth around public transit hubs.

These concepts demonstrate one of this competition’s greatest catalytic impacts: spurring leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors to build deeper partnerships to reduce greenhouse gas emissions together.

To extend the impact of the challenge in cities across the U.S., Vulcan and the USDOT have formed a Smart City Challenge Collaborative — an initiative that is already drawing in new private-sector and philanthropic partners who are eager to accelerate the transformation of urban transportation systems and bring to life many of the ideas proposed during this challenge.

Among the private sector partners that have already committed to this effort include General Motors, Nissan, DC Solar, Lyft, Moovel, Bridj, Bestmile and Daimler.

We are also pleased to welcome leading environmental foundation The 11th Hour Project. As part of its grant making focus on renewable energy and electric vehicles, the foundation will provide follow-up funding to a subset of cities to support their plans for clean and modern transportation systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ensure equitable access to riders, and promote sustainable options like ride sharing and biking.

Undoubtedly, skeptics will argue that the cost of decarbonizing our transportation infrastructure is too high. But in reality, the opposite is true: it’s the cost of business-as-usual that is unaffordable, and we must invest now to accelerate the transition.

There is historic precedent for such a shift. A century ago, millions of Americans long accustomed to navigating city streets teeming with horses embraced Henry Ford’s Model T, and very quickly our cities became more efficient, productive and prosperous. In conjunction with that, tens of thousands of enterprising businesses emerged to develop the correspondingly, tens of thousands of enterprising businesses emerged to develop infrastructure for the automobile age.

Today’s world requires a similar shift to more innovative, greener transportation options and modern systems to match. It’s inspiring to see so many cities engineering a better future.