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Smart Columbus On A Mission: Invest In Technology People Aren't Using Yet

The Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown Columbus helps promote electric vehicles.
Michael Lee
The Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown Columbus helps promote electric vehicles.

An electric vehicle charging station sits at the corner of City Hall and LeVeque Tower Garage in downtown Columbus. This afternoon, it's empty.

The station is one of more than 600 in Central Ohio, although most are concentrated downtown. By the time Smart Columbus' grant runs out in March 2020, it aims to install a total of 1,000 in Franklin and its six surrounding counties.

Smart Columbus Vice President Mark Patton wants to increase the percentage of people who drive electric vehicles.

“We’re trying to get to 1.8% by the end of essentially next year,” Patton says, referring to the percentage growth of electric vehicle adopters. “For the fourth quarter of this year, we exceeded 2%. We hit 2.4.”

Although small, that percentage of drivers going electric is up significantly—compare it to the 0.37% adoption rate in 2016. After all, the bar to entry is high.

“We didn’t have a lot of charging infrastructure in place, so who’s gonna buy an electric vehicle if they don’t think they can get it charged?” Patton asks.

That's the core of the problem Smart Columbus trying to tackle: They're looking to build a future that isn’t here yet, developing technologies that only a small portion of people use now. 

Columbus won a nationwide challenge to be named America’s Smart City in 2016. It received $40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $10 million from Vulcan to develop modes of transit beyond gas-fueled cars in Franklin County and its six contiguous counties: Union, Delaware, Licking, Fairfield, Pickaway and Madison.

Now, Smart Columbus is thinking of how to continue its work once the federal funds run out next year.

Pushing Electric Vehicles

A few years into its grant, Smart Columbus prioritizes introducing people to smart technologies. The organization built an Experience Center along the Scioto River for passerby to check out electric vehicles and examine how transit will change if driverless cars become more popular. 

Smart Columbus boasts 12 full-time staff members, and it has 27 actionable items in its federal grant, including creating connected-vehicle environments where cars can communicate with one another in neighborhoods like Linden.

There is no official list of how many people drive electronic vehicles in the area. The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles keeps numbers on how many specific types of cars are registered, but not the specific number of drivers.

Inside the Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Inside the Smart Columbus Experience Center in downtown.

Inside the Experience Center, several electronic vehicles rotate on display; visitors can stop them and get inside. The center also has touchscreen explainers of ways Smart Columbus wants to technologize transportation.

Patton says car manufacturers prioritize zero-emission states like California when it comes to model availability, so he spends a lot of time getting companies to make comparably-affordable models here. He's been successful with some models.

“In the last year you’ve seen The [Nissan] Leaf, which has been out for quite a while. But a new model that’s pretty affordable, The Chevy Volt, and certainly the Tesla Model 3, appeals more to people who wouldn’t own their own home," Patton explains.

As more people switch to electric, Patton hopes to attract more kinds of vehicles to Central Ohio.

“A lot of models that would be available in those states, they just don’t sell them here. Which is a challenge,” Patton says.

Smart Columbus asked partnering companies to educate their employees on electric vehicles. So far, it's had 7,500 people take the cars out for a test drive.

Patton is looking to business leaders to lead the transition into electric vehicles.

“We asked their CEOs or senior executives to buy, just to sort of lead the way. We set a goal of getting 50 C-suite people driving electric,” Patton says. “I think we’re at 46. With a year to go, I’ll crush that goal.”

Promoting Multi-Modal Transit

It’s not all about electric vehicles, though. Late last year, Smart Columbus launched a driverless shuttle that runs along a three-mile route near the Scioto Mile. As of April 4, more than 5,500 people had ridden the shuttle.

Columbus Chief Innovation Officer Michael Stevens says Smart Columbus explores all transportation options.

“What are we doing to solve first mile-last mile and other microtransit efforts?” Stevens asks.

First mile-last mile transit refers to the beginning or end of a trip made primarily with public transportation. If transit is close enough, people will walk that part.

Stevens calls 2019 a "year of implementation." This year, Smart Columbus will release a multi-modal trip planning app, a pre-natal assistance app, and develop a common payment system for when riders use multiple modes of transportation.

“Right now, to move around Columbus, you need a car a lot of the time. So cars are not cheap. It’s a barrier for members of our community,” Stevens says. “So to make it easier where you’re planning a trip and walking or ride sharing or using our transit authority and paying for it all.”

Josh Lapp chairs Transit Columbus, which advocates for affordable multi-modal transportation for everyone in the city. He appreciates the goals of Smart Columbus, but he says it’s hard for the public to tell whether the project is on-track or even of wide benefit.

“I think we have yet to see the full fruition of what was proposed at the beginning,” Lapp says.

Lapp hopes the focus on electronic vehicles does not leave behind people who can’t afford them.

“I want to see how those projects support the transit system, not how those projects can replace the transit system,” Lapp says.

What Happens When the Money Runs Out?

Smart Columbus focuses on private partnerships to continue its work post-grant. AEP is the largest private donor, and the company’s Smart Columbus liaison Sherry Hubbard says they've contributed $185 million for de-carbonization and electric grid projects.

“Another area is electrification. That’s another very large piece. One of Smart Columbus’ objectives is to increase the electric vehicles by five-fold by the time the project is in,” Hubbard says. “One of the obstacles to that is people wondering will they be able to get from one charging station to another charging station.”

AEP is implementing an incentive program for its business customers to install electric vehicle charging stations. Hubbard says while much of Smart Columbus’ fruit will be seen down the road, some are already visible.

“Deployment of AMI or smart meters in Columbus is about 90 percent complete,” Hubbard says. “So that will be done here within the first or second quarter of 2019.”

AMI refers to advanced metering infrastructure that allows two-way communication between a meter and the central system.

Other community partners have committed a total of more than $500 million to the project, including $15 million from The Ohio State University. The city has a goal of obtaining $1 billion in private pledges by the time the grant ends in March 2020.

Stevens says there isn’t an official plan of action yet for after the grant. But he says one key is maintaining the brand Smart Columbus built.

“Beyond the grant, we’re starting to have some sustainability discussions,” Stevens says. “But they’re in the initial phases. It depends on who’s gonna be advancing mobility work.”

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.