How 3 US cities are getting smarter via the latest technologies

Cities are getting smarter, as municipal governments take advantage of the latest technologies in networking, Internet of Things (IoT), data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, and other areas to gather all kinds of information—with the aim of providing better services to citizens, cutting costs, and operating more environmentally friendly infrastructures.

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Urban areas around the world are using different kinds of digital methods to collect data from buildings, vehicles, traffic systems, lights, devices and other objects. They're using the insights they gain from this data to more efficiently manage assets, resources, and services, and in general improve operations across the cities.

Smart city initiatives run across the spectrum of services, including traffic and transportation, energy and utilities, water supply, waste management, crime detection, education, libraries, healthcare facilities, and others.

There might be some debate as to what constitutes a smart city. But in general these municipalities are looking to take day-to-day services to a new level of effectiveness and efficiency, using the latest digital tools and services to continue transforming how they operate.

Here's how three US cities are leveraging smart technologies to improve services.

New York's comprehensive IoT strategy

New York City recently launched a comprehensive IoT strategy that encompasses a number of existing and new initiatives. The city is using IoT technologies to monitor air quality, temperature, and other weather data; analyze traffic patterns and count cyclists; track city-owned vehicles; assess energy usage; and maintain water mains—among other initiatives.

One of the city's largest-scale IoT projects is the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) integration of wirelessly connected water meters for buildings. The meters enable DEP technicians to monitor water usage in more than 800,000 buildings, eliminating the need to send out inspectors to read meters.

The system also allows DEP to alert residents when they might have a leak based on tracked increases in use, or whether a building is inhabited when it isn't supposed to be.

Another large-scale example comes from the city's Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), which in 2018 launched what New York calls the nation's largest tracking program for public vehicles.

The project, called Fleet Office of Real-Time Tracking (FORT), uses a telematics system consisting of telecommunication, vehicle, and sensor technologies to track 23,000 fleet vehicles across fifty city agencies and forty public school bus companies. It logs data on vehicle locations, utilization, and maintenance needs, as well as crashes, speeding infractions, seatbelt use, and idling.

DCAS is using data from this project to improve city services, support increased safety, maintain fuel and resource efficiency, and prepare for emergencies.

Given the sensitivity of vehicle location data, DCAS has deployed a set of internal security policies and procedures for access to and management of related data. The department has also anonymized data when used in conjunction with external partners, such as universities, for analytical purposes.

New York City is also using IoT systems to automate the enforcement of traffic laws and increase public safety. Part of its broader Vision Zero initiative to improve the safety of city streets, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Speed Camera program uses connected cameras to remotely enforce speed limits in city school zones.

The program was launched in 2014 and expanded in 2019, when a state law was passed enlarging areas and hours allowable for speed camera use. It now covers all 750 school zones allowable under the law. The deployed cameras identify vehicles travelling 10 miles per hour or more above the posted speed limit, capture images of vehicle license plates, and issue a $50 notice of liability to the registered vehicle owner.

Data from the initial camera rollout showed that speeding in zones with a camera dropped by more than 60 percent.

DOT is also conducting a long-term research and pilot program to study connected vehicle technology. The NYC Connected Vehicle Project is mainly focused on safety applications, which rely on vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, and infrastructure-to-pedestrian communications.

In addition to using this technology to prevent collisions between vehicles, there are applications that aid blind and low-vision pedestrians with street crossings, and those that monitor compliance with speed regulations in work zones or height restrictions for oversized vehicles.

In 2020, DOT completed the conversion of its traffic signal, camera, and travel sensor network from a network that had been discontinued citywide to a new Traffic Safety Network (TSN), creating the city's largest IoT communications network. TSN connects more than 13,000 intersections and devices to DOT's Traffic Management Center, providing situational awareness of road use and facilitating advanced applications such as adaptive traffic control and transit signal prioritization to improve bus travel speeds.

In addition, the department is using IoT to ease operations, management, and enforcement of metered parking across the city. In 2016, the agency launched ParkNYC, a mobile platform for parking payments. This year, DOT plans to begin installing Pay-By-Plate meters, which will facilitate the introduction of new curb management techniques, enhanced analytical capabilities, and opportunities for more effective enforcement.

Also in 2021, DOT and the city's office of the CTO will pilot computer vision technology to provide automated counts of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles as they move through parts of the city. This type of work is currently conducted by hand and is labor- and cost-intensive, according to the city. Having more rigorous data sets about how mobility habits and patterns are changing will enable DOT to assess street design and road infrastructure to better accommodate the evolution of transportation within the city.

The New York City IoT strategy "sets an agenda that will bolster innovation, foster and increase collaboration among agencies, boost partnership opportunities across sectors, and strengthen governance and coordination throughout the city," says Paul Rothman, director, Smart Cities + IoT Lab at the city's office of the CTO. "It aims to increase engagement, transparency, and education for city residents and create a healthy IoT ecosystem in New York City."

Austin gets smart about transportation, water, energy

In Austin, Texas, key smart city initiatives involve transportation, water management, and energy.

The city's Smart Mobility Office's Pilot Program, overseen by the Austin Transportation Department, strives to leverage public-private partnerships to deploy and evaluate emerging mobility technologies. The program evaluates whether these solutions can help Austin achieve city and community goals, such as reducing congestion, improving safety, or providing access to services for vulnerable and underserved communities.

Since its inception in 2018, the Smart Mobility Office has received 136 pilot proposals, says Jason JonMichael, assistant director, Smart Mobility at the Transportation Department. Proposals tend to fall into one or more of several categories, including shared-use mobility, electric vehicles and infrastructure, connected and automated vehicles, data and technology, and asset management, among others.

The city has operated a number of pilots over the past year, JonMichael says.

In one, 3M and MicroTraffic have partnered with Austin Transportation to automatically measure near-misses at several high-risk intersections, using traffic video.

The system measures near-misses for all modes of transportation, including e-scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, and motorized vehicles. "This analysis promotes proactive understanding of intersection risk, and allows 3M to make recommendations to traffic engineers that could improve safety at the analyzed intersections," JonMichael says.

Another project, part of Austin Transportation's Vision Zero initiative, is a partnership with Verizon in which the Smart Mobility Office installed an Intersection Safety Analytics (ISA) system at a key city intersection. The pilot will test the system, which is designed to measure traffic-related conflicts among motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists, by analyzing traffic data.

The ISA system provides access to near real-time vehicle behavior metrics, JonMichael says. "Intersection data analysis is critical to understanding the causes of conflicts and delivering solutions to eliminate the safety risk," he says.

Water management is another area where Austin is trying to modernize. The Austin City Council approved contracts in March 2020 that paved the way for Austin Water to update its water metering system with digital meters, also known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).

This smart water system, known as My ATX Water, is in a pilot phase following the installation of 5,000 meters. Over the next five years, the project will replace more than 230,000 analog water meters in Austin with electronically read smart water meters connected to a wireless network, according to a spokesperson.

An online portal will connect customers to near-real time water use data, custom notifications, leak alerts, water saving suggestions, and other content.

The My ATX Water project is part of a strategy to achieve water conservation goals in Austin Water's 100-year water plan, known as Water Forward. "This technology will help manage water system infrastructure and protect our water supply with better leak management," the spokesperson says.

Data analytics will provide improved tools for monitoring and predicting water demand, which will provide insights in the implementation of demand management and water supply strategies. Through the My ATX Water portal, customers can receive near-real time water usage data, which can help them conserve water and save money.

The portal can also alert customers about leaks or water usage spikes, so they can get timely repairs or curb water usage as soon as possible.

Energy is another area of focus for the city's modernization efforts. In 2016, Austin Energy, the municipally-owned electric utility, launched the Austin SHINES Project to lay the groundwork for modernizing the electric grid. Through the project, Austin Energy in cooperation with a number of partners paired solar energy with battery storage at the residential, commercial, and grid scale.

The project maximizes the value of renewable generation and energy storage by connecting it to a centralized communications platform, "which includes using data-driven decisions on when and how we use energy in the future and improve operations," according to a spokesperson.

Renewable energy generation will be a major part of the smart city plan, "and through this project we are learning how to maximize the value of renewable energy through pairing it with battery storage, market signals, and smart inverters," the spokesperson says. "This gives us the flexibility of deciding when and where we want to use this energy being produced by the sun."

The Austin SHINES Project has resulted in more efficient and dynamic energy usage, the spokesperson says. "Energy storage may be the critical technology that will make widespread adoption of renewable energy possible and practical," the spokesperson says. "With an ever-growing renewable energy portfolio, Austin Energy is incorporating a way to use that energy when the sun might not be shining or the wind might not be blowing."

Pittsburgh improves traffic flow, lighting, and shared mobility

When it comes to leading-edge technology related to vehicles and driving, Pittsburgh has been at the forefront for years. The city has been among the most active in terms of local research and development of self-driving cars.

One of Pittsburgh's biggest smart city initiatives is the use of adaptive traffic signals to help reduce travel time for commuters and cut down on the amount of time cars spend idling. The city wants to provide safe and efficient multi-modal operation of the key corridors into and out of the central business district, according to Karina Ricks, director of the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure for the city.

The key enabling technology is a system called Smart Signals, networked traffic signals that use edge computing to optimize traffic progression. The system, which also includes 360-degree, omni-view cameras that can detect vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians and feed this data to software applications, helps the city make decisions related to certain policy objectives such as congestion/emission reduction and mass transit priority.

The smart traffic signal initiative is based on a pilot program launched at Carnegie Mellon University, which is located in Pittsburgh. Another component of the project is a Traffic Control Center that provides for real-time operation of signalized corridors from a central location. Pittsburgh developed a citywide communication network that uses broadband radio and a fiber optic infrastructure to offer high-level communication with the City of Pittsburgh's traffic signal inventory.

CCTV cameras located at strategic locations provide control center staff with real-time streaming video, to observe traffic patterns and make adjustments based on conditions.

The Smart Signals and Traffic Control Center initiatives have led to a reduction in travel time delays by about 20%, and reduced congestion and emissions, Ricks says.

The city is also converting streetlights to LED technology, with the aim of saving on energy costs. It's installing LED lighting elements with smart controllers to manage lighting levels.

Another smart city initiative is MovePGH, an integrated mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) offering designed to expand easy-to-use, shared mobility services to reduce transportation costs. The public-private initiative launched by the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure enables citizens to download mobile apps to get access to bike rentals, bus tickets, Spin electric scooters, Waze Carpool, and Zipcar.

The shared platform provides intermodal trip planning, trip booking, and fare integration, according to Ricks. MovePGH has helped expand access to jobs, reduce commute times, and increase travel time reliability and resiliency, she says. It has also reduced the need for ownership and maintenance of multiple private autos per household, and provided more flexibility, convenience, and reliability for citizens.