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Smart City Initiatives Present New Frontier For Transportation Rights Struggles

A recovery vehicle moves a sled down a track after a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system, Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in North Las Vegas, Nev.
John Locher
Associated Press
A recovery vehicle moves a sled down a track after a test of a Hyperloop One propulsion system in Las Vegas.

When Columbus made Amazon’s list of finalists for the tech giant’s second headquarters, critics had one major concern: the city’s transportation system. With talk of a Hyperloop once again in the air and a Smart City project in the works, how citizens get around Columbus has become a pressing question. 

"The ability to access social and economic opportunity in a fair or equal way, that is- what we see is if people don't have the same right to travel, usually that's based on some sort of discriminatory behavior," says Tom Sanchez, a professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech.

Sanchez, who's speaking at The Ohio State University on Wednesday, says transportation is a civil right. He points to cases where funding for transportation projects goes toward light rail systems that have one set of ridership, compared to a bus system that has a different demographic of ridership.

And while transportation access has been an issue since before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, more precise data collected by Smart City initiatives may change the equation.

"Do we potentially have some new means or techniques to try to make our urban systems more fair?" Sanchez says. "Is it a case that gathering more and better information is going to help us in that decision making or that planning process? Are we going to be able to detect some of these inequities or barriers that we've placed before certain socioeconomic groups?"

While we typically think of discrimination playing out along lines of poverty and race, Sanchez says transportation also impacts people based on age and ability.

"It's across not only who can afford different transportation modes, but even in cases of who can physically access them," he says. "We've all seen cases where transit stops have no curb cuts available or no easy access to get on the bus."

As Columbus continues to work through its Smart City grant, and considers both light rail projects and a Hyperloop, Sanchez has one piece of advice for city leaders: Engage the community.

"Sorting that out is a challenge and incorporating that into the plan-making is a challenge," Sanchez says. "But I would say that democratic process builds stronger plans. It's easier for the community to buy in."

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.