Pete Buttigieg still believes in smart cities
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Remember “smart cities”? A few years ago, a bunch of companies — Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and others — got a lot of people excited about the concept of transforming our cities, with their analog traffic signals and antiquated wastewater systems, into gleaming technopolises full of self-driving cars, public Wi-Fi, and embedded sensors collecting data on average citizens.

The idea never really came to fruition — a lot of people got understandably jittery about privacy and data collection. But the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) still sees promise in the concept — not data collection exactly, but the idea of using technology to improve city services.

The fiscal year 2022 SMART program project types.
Image: USDOT

This week, the agency released $94 million in new funding authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law with the goal of helping dozens of small-scale smart city projects get off the ground — in some cases, quite literally. Drone delivery, smart traffic signals, and connected vehicles are just some of the projects that will be the recipients of this first wave of funding.

In an interview with The Verge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there’s still a lot of merit to smart cities, especially if they can be leveraged to improve people’s lives.

“It’s about technology, but it’s not about technology for its own sake.”

“The idea is to make sure that technology unfolds in ways that make us all better off,” Buttigieg said. “It’s about technology, but it’s not about technology for its own sake.”

Authorized under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) program was established as a pot of money that cities, states, transit agencies, tribal governments, and other entities could tap into to test out new technologies. The $1 trillion infrastructure law included $500 million for these “smart” mobility projects over five years, with the first awardees being announced this week.

Winning projects include $2 million to Detroit to use sensors and artificial intelligence software to “predict and prevent” traffic crashes in the city; $1.7 million to Arizona to “digitize” roadways for vehicle-to-everything technology; and $2 million to Los Angeles for a “code the curb” project that would use sensors to “create a digital inventory of physical curb lane assets” to improve the flow of traffic.

Public transportation would also be a big beneficiary of the SMART grant program, with several transit agencies receiving funding to improve things like ticketing, routing, and trip planning. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in Silicon Valley, for example, is getting $1.7 million for something called “transit signal priority,” which would upgrade traffic signals to give priority to city buses.

“Little things like that can make all the difference in terms of whether somebody decides that using the bus is the right answer for them,” Buttigieg said.

Drones are another technology getting a big financial boost by the department. Seven projects involve the use of “uncrewed aircraft systems” to test out the feasibility of services like drone delivery of medical supplies, for example. Several companies, including Google spinoff Wing and others, are currently experimenting with drone delivery in a handful of communities, which has raised concerns about airspace management and malfunctioning aerial devices running into overhead electrical cables.

Public transportation would also be a big beneficiary of the SMART grant program

Buttigieg said drones are a “classic example” of a technology that could do a lot of good, especially when it comes to things like surveying infrastructure projects or delivering necessary supplies to remote regions where it’s typically too expensive to get to. But drones can also be “very problematic,” he acknowledged, “to imagine how to manage these drones flying over our homes, and cluttering up an airspace that’s already hard enough to manage when it comes to conventional air travel.”

USDOT will be vigilant about addressing problems that arise from these projects. “To begin to get traction on solving those problems, we have to see how these technologies work in the real world,” Buttigieg said.

Tellingly, the maximum award to any project is just $2 million. That’s just enough money to fund a few drones for a test project or embed a handful of sensors or redesign a few curbs for better traffic management. The goal of the grant program is to provide enough funding for cities to experiment and test out new technologies.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg poses for a portrait at the Department of Transportation offices in Washington, DC.
Image: Cheriss May for The Verge

USDOT wanted to create a pipeline of funding, and if any of the awardees can prove their projects are generating positive results, they’ll likely get more money to help capitalize on those successes. But if they end up creating more problems than they solve, USDOT will pull the plug.

The hesitation to pour a lot of money into smart cities is understandable. Past efforts to transform cities with data, sensors, and autonomous vehicles haven’t really panned out. Google spinoff Sidewalk Labs pulled out of Toronto after residents objected to the company’s high-tech, sensor-laden vision for the city’s waterfront. Columbus, Ohio, won $50 million through the federal government’s “Smart City Challenge” in 2016, but many of the changes the city originally proposed remain unfulfilled.

“We have to see how these technologies work in the real world”

Buttigieg said that skepticism of smart cities is warranted but that technology can help improve people’s lives if deployed — pardon the pun — smartly. “I think smart city technologies matter more than ever,” he said, “but I do think there’s been a lesson over the last decade about trying to fit everything into a grand unified system.”

He recalled from his time as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, when an unnamed “very large technology firm” proposed to install a digital dashboard “that integrated everything and promised to create almost a Sim City digital twin of our entire municipal operation.”

At the end of his tenure as mayor, Buttigieg said the dashboard failed to live up to its grand promise, but South Bend got an improved way to manage its wastewater system as well as a 311 system for nonemergency municipal services. The lesson was learned.

“We’re not funding a city or a state to digitize or technologize their entire world,” he said. “And there’s some humility in that.”

Not every project funded under the SMART grant program “is going to prove out and be that headline win,” he added. “But that’s okay. That’s part of the process.”

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