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Archive of posts filed under the Technology category.

Denver’s Smart City Ambitions Leverage Technology to Increase Mobility

by Camron Bridgford

What exactly does it mean to be a Smart City?

The most exciting part for many urbanists, technology innovators, open data proponents, and transportation and social justice advocates may, in fact, be the lack of a clear answer. However, through recently announced support from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and Transportation for America, Denver may be in the driver’s seat to develop their own, unique definition.

The idea of a Smart City—which received significant attention through the highly-competitive Smart Cities Challenge grant offered by USDOT in 2015/2016—is to leverage rapidly evolving technology to meet increasingly complex transportation challenges in urban centers. For instance, according to Transportation for America, 85 percent of the country’s total population now lives in urban areas. While this illustrates the immense demand for urban living and a renewed investment in our cities’ centers, it also underlines mobility challenges that arise with denser populations, such as continued dependence on manual, single-occupancy vehicles, as well as growing transportation disparities for low-income and minority groups, many of whom are technologically disconnected.

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Overall, a Smart City looks to address these symbiotic challenges by seeking solutions that emphasize data collection and sharing to publicize successes and failures in transportation innovation; promote a willingness to take on risk and serve as a mobility incubator; leverage partnerships, both with cities and private industry, to fund projects and offer a maximize return on investment; and increase equity in problem-solving so that all people’s needs are captured, especially those who are transit-dependent.

The enthusiasm that the Smart Cities Challenge sparked, which garnered 77 applications from nearly all mid-to-large-sized cities in the U.S., demonstrated the urgency and opportunity cities feel in improving and maximizing their transportation systems for increasingly diverse populations. While Denver was one of seven finalists, the final award—an unprecedented $50 million—went to Columbus, Ohio.

However, October produced two new developments in the advancement of Smart Cities, both which recognized that 76 cities were left sitting on Smart City plans without the necessary assistance to propel them off the ground. As a result, USDOT announced an additional $65 million to cities for advanced technology in transportation, $6 million of which will be awarded to Denver to alleviate congestion through “connected vehicles.” This insinuates Denver’s desire to increase modes of transport—such as single-occupancy vehicles, buses, future automated vehicles, or car and ride shares—that are equipped with internet access and a wireless network. These advances would make possible communication between cars, public transit, and infrastructure like stop lights and nearby stores, all with the goal of providing an increased flow of information that increases the affordability, diversity and efficiency of mobility choices.

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Additionally, a public-private partnership between Transportation for America and Sidewalk Labs just announced assistance via a new Smart Cities collaborative, with Denver selected as one of 16 cities nationwide, alongside the likes of Austin, Boston, Seattle and Washington, D.C. This collaborative of cities, which will incorporate Denver’s primary goal of increasing “mobility freedom,” will work to implement smart city policies, share best practices and pilot new programs in three key areas: automated vehicles, shared mobility and the utilization of performance measures and data analytics.

In recent years, USDOT, municipalities, and other public and private sector partners have fast recognized the growing perfect storm of urban conditions and technological advances that could lead cities to develop innovative solutions to move people more efficiently, affordably and equitably. James Corless, director of Transportation for America, notes that current changes underway will represent the biggest shift in transportation and mobility since the advent of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

However, as with most innovation, cities must either get ahead of the curve and decide what transportation will look like for their city, or they will be left to be shaped by the decisions that other players make. With a population increase of more than 18,000 in 2015, and an additional 1.1 million people projected to move into the metro area by 2040, Denver has significant stake in the game.

Denver’s proactive stance toward becoming a Smart City—and more importantly, deciding what that definition will uniquely mean for Denver—is a critical step toward increasing mobility for all residents. And while the perfection that technological advances seemingly provide cannot be everything—the magnetism of our urban environment is created just as much by the necessity of navigating a city’s imperfect, messy conditions—technology will play a crucial role in determining how to tackle some of our biggest urban issues, including those of mobility, access, affordability, and equity.

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Camron Bridgford is a master’s candidate in urban and regional planning at the University of Colorado Denver, with a particular interest in the use and politics of public space as it relates to urban revitalization, culture and placemaking, and community development. She also works as a freelance writer to investigate urban-related issues and serves as a non-profit consultant.


RTD A-Line Opening Countdown: THREE DAYS!

Now that we have climbed over that Monday wall, I am pleased to announce that there are only THREE days left until the A-Line, connecting the world to Downtown Denver, opens. Today we are going to look into the commuter trains that will be hauling passengers to and from Denver International Airport at a top speed of 79 miles per hour.

The Silverliner V looks and feels like a very classic heavy rail / subway train. These trains are large, silver, and mean serious business.

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RTD purchased 66 of these cars, in the married pair configuration for $300 million. The trains were built in Korea, tested in Philadelphia, and then shipped to Denver. Philadelphia made a great candidate for testing because they use the same exact trains for SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority). The first Silverliner V’s arrived in Denver on November 20th and initially had to be pulled into Denver Union Station for testing since the overhead catenary wire system was still under construction.

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The 70 ton, 600 hp Silverliner V has been in full speed testing for months now and can be seen at regular 15-30 minute intervals along the line.

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In three days, we will all be able to ride this brand new type of train, how incredibly exciting!


RTD A-Line Opening Countdown: FOUR DAYS!

There are only four days until the “Train to the Plane” line opens! This is an incredibly huge transit milestone for the Denver metro area, as we will finally have solid rail transit connecting Denver Union Station and Denver International Airport. For this countdown, we are going to be exploring some facts and figures about Denver’s best new rail line.

Today, we are going to settle the confusion of light rail and commuter rail. In many news outlets, reporters are referring to the new A-line as light rail. This is completely incorrect. So what exactly is the difference and what are the differences between the two systems in Denver?

Light rail is exactly what the name implies, light. They are designed to operate in crowded, narrow corridors, usually have narrowly spaced stops, have a capacity of around 155 passengers per trip, and top out at 55 miles per hour. The overhead catenary system is fairly lightweight, powering the trains with a direct current of 750 volts. Below are two photos showing the West Line light rail system.

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Commuter rail is a heavy rail system. It is designed to get passengers and commuters to their destination faster. Commuter rail runs along open corridors, and doesn’t interact much with the street level. It’s like a freight line except for passengers. These trains are big. They have a capacity of around 170 passengers per trip, have fewer stops, and top out at 79 miles per hour. The overhead catenary system is serious business powering the trains with an alternating current of 25 kilovolts (kV). Below are two photos showing the new A-Line commuter rail system.

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In summary, the commuter rail serves longer distances, in a shorter amount of time, with fewer stops while light rail covers shorter distances, is made for more urban spaces, and has more stops. I’m glad we settled that difference before April 22nd!


Colorado Leads the Nation in Embracing, Regulating Ride-sharing Services

The controversy over ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft is well known, with national sites like CityLab reporting that states and cities both nationally and internationally are discouraging or even banning these companies from providing ride-sharing services as a viable transportation alternative in urban areas. 

Meanwhile, Colorado has taken a different approach. Recognizing that ride-sharing can be a smart and sustainable transportation option if properly regulated, Colorado has become the first in the nation to pass a comprehensive set of ride-sharing regulations that allow Uber, Lyft, and similar companies to succeed while providing reasonable safeguards for ride-sharing customers. The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support in the Colorado legislature, was signed by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper on June 5, 2014.

The difference in attitude on this topic between Colorado and other states is stark, as is evidenced by Governor Hickenlooper’s signing statement on the new legislation: “Today, as we sign into law Colorado’s Transportation Network Company Act, we celebrate and affirm that Colorado is open for business as a place where entrepreneurs and tech-savvy innovators can thrive. We welcome UberX and Lyft and other ride-share companies that will provide Coloradans with an affordable and convenient new transportation option. Colorado once again is in the vanguard in promoting innovation and competition while protecting consumers and public safety.”

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(image source: http://blog.uber.com/regsdoneright)

Uber and Lyft echoed Governor Hickenlooper’s views on Colorado’s leadership in providing transportation options for its citizens. Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Wilson said: “By creating a common-sense regulatory framework for ridesharing that prioritizes public safety and consumer choice, Colorado has stepped up as a leader in welcoming innovative, community-powered transportation options and forging a path for other jurisdictions to follow.” Uber’s Eva Behrend added: “Colorado is on the cutting-edge of innovation and technology. Their leaders understand that laws should not stand in the way of consumer choice, innovation and the natural evolution of the way people travel; instead, they have proactively adopted commonsense rules to allow for technology to create safe, convenient and seamless new transportation options.”

Way to go, Colorado!


Gates Redevelopment: Planning for Innovation

“When people come together they become much more productive” – Geoffrey West

Currently, the Old Gates Rubber Plant is being demolished. Its long anticipated demolition will pave the way for years of development and, in the end, provide South Denver neighborhoods with new places to shop, eat, hang out, and better connect with new friends.

This piece will not cover the demolition timetable, the history of the site, or what might have been; this is a piece laying out an idea for something new, something interesting, something that will continue to make Denver a lure for future generations to move to Colorado.

Imagine a cutting edge research institute within ten minutes of downtown Denver. A site that has great access to open space, public transit, historic neighborhoods, and great parks. This site would have a bustling center with shops, apartments, great restaurants, and tons of energy. The heart of this community would be built around innovation, creativity, and the next generation of scientists, designers, and entrepreneurs. A place where new technologies are being built in cooperation with universities, businesses, nonprofits, and local municipalities.

What I am envisioning is something best defined by Bruce Katz: an Innovation District is a location that clusters leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms, connecting them with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, retail and 21st century urban amenities.

The concept of the Innovation District it is not drastically different than the original plan for the redevelopment, where it is different is the clustering of anchoring institutions, and supporting companies. I am imagining a series of facilities that satellite locations for: CU, CSU, and the School of Mines. If done correctly, the three schools could share their resources in the purchasing of equipment, better run challenges, and foster new businesses that utilize students from the different institutions.

In terms of supporting organizations, space could be provided for the many other schools around the city: Metro, Johnson & Wales, the Art Institute. This connecting of universities would allow non-technically oriented students to assist these future companies with help in marketing, accounting, advertising, planning, art, etc.

Outside of schools, this would provide an impetus for businesses to relocate to Denver, they would have a plethora of talent to pull from, researchers at close reach, transit, historic neighborhoods within walking distance, a newly enhanced S. Platte River, and all within 10 minutes of Downtown Denver.

http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/12/30-silicon-cities-katz#


It’s time for a trolleybus comeback

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Trolleybus in Seattle.

Trolleybuses are rubber-wheeled buses that are powered by overhead wires. They offer a number of advantages over regular buses, but are very rare in the United States.

There are currently only five US cities that operate trolleybuses. They are Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Dayton. Trolleybuses are so rare because they require overhead wires, which are expensive to install, limit bus route flexibility, and are often considered ugly.

On the other hand, compared to normal diesel buses, trolleybuses are quieter, smoother, cleaner, and accelerate faster. They also offer a sense of permanence that normal buses can’t match.

Many of the advantages of trolleybuses come from their power source. Since they run on electricity rather than fossil fuels they emit no fumes, and they accelerate quickly, smoothly, and quietly. However, all those advantages can be duplicated by wire-free electric buses without the cost or trouble of overhead wires.

So why bother with wires?

Because the cost and relative rarity of wires is a sure signal that a transit route will be predictable and permanent. Wires provide the same sort of visual fortification that rail tracks provide. They are a clear signal to riders that they are dealing with a significant and special transit line.

Since so few trolleybuses have been built in recent years, and all the cities that use them have used them for decades, it is difficult to know how much of an effect wires without tracks can have on transit oriented development. Given the push for affordable BRT in many cities, the potential prospect of TOD-inducing buses is something that ought to be explored.

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Trolleybuses can shift lanes without disconnecting their wires.

Trolleybuses even offer a significant advantage over rail streetcars. Since they aren’t tied to tracks, flexible trolley poles allow buses to switch lanes in order to go around obstructions. Without tracks to constrain them, trolleybuses mixing in a lane with cars are less likely to be held up by traffic. Additionally, many trolleybuses are built as hybrids and are capable of lowering their poles and running on batteries or fossil fuels as a backup.

It is unfortunate that the so few trolleybus systems survived the 20th Century. Most of them fell victim to the same transit death spiral that destroyed most American streetcar systems.

However, streetcars are enjoying a renaissance because contemporary planners have discovered they can be useful. It may be time for trolleybuses to enjoy a renaissance of their own.


Are electric buses the future?

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Above: A traditional electric trolley bus in San Francisco.
Below: GM’s wireless electric bus prototype.

Electric buses offer many advantages over traditional fossil fuel buses, but they are more expensive and difficult to run. A new model by General Motors may bring them to the mainstream.

The most obvious advantage of electric buses is environmental, but the fact that they don’t spew any harmful gases into the atmosphere is hardly the only benefit. Electric buses are also quieter and smoother to ride than fossil fuel buses, resulting in a more comfortable experience for riders and fewer negative effects to the neighborhoods buses travel through.

Traditionally to run an all electric bus a transit agency had to install overhead wires. This can actually be an advantage as well, since it displays a sense of permanence to the transit line, which gives trolley buses some of the same economic development advantages of actual trolleys. On the other hand, wires can also be a big negative, both visually and fiscally. Installing and maintaining overhead wires adds so much to the cost of running a transit line that very few cities in the US use them.

But what if it were possible to run an electric bus without the wires? You’d lose that permanence advantage, but the environmental, comfort, and noise advantages would all still apply. And if, after all, wireless streetcars are being developed, why shouldn’t a wireless bus be possible too?

It turns out General Motors is working on one, along with a Colorado-based company called Proterra. Their EcoRide BE-35 model bus is fully electric and runs on lithium-ion battery packs that give it a 40-mile range for every 10-minute charge. The 35-foot, low floor bus design is basically comparable to normal city buses otherwise.

The website doesn’t include many details that will have to be addressed before very many transit agencies pony up money (such as whether the bus can run air conditioning), but if they can make the idea work it has potential to revolutionize urban busing.


Apps track bikesharing in real time

Do you use B-Cycle? Did you know that you can track dock and bike availability online in real time? Knowing ahead of time which stations are full or empty makes bikesharing tremendously more user-friendly.

Online maps accessible from your computer are available for both Denver and Boulder, and smart phone apps are free to download for iPhone and Android.

Happy bikesharing!


Nuclear power, the US, and Japan

Question: How might the disaster in Japan kill thousands of Americans? Answer: If anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactionaries are successful in using the Japanese tsunami as political leverage to scare Americans from investing in more nuclear power.

How so? Because every year 30,000 Americans die from causes related to coal power production. Thirty thousand. That’s more dead Americans every year than in the entire Revolutionary War. It’s five times as many dead Americans as the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. It’s almost twice the 18,000 estimated Japanese dead from the tsunami disaster.

The longer we use coal instead of nuclear for the majority of our power generation in this country, the more Americans will die.

While we’re on the subject, let’s also talk about how dangerous the nuclear situation in Japan actually is. The chart below is a snippet from a much larger one comparing radiation doses received for a variety of events. Note that the additional radiation doses received by Japanese citizens in villages near the breaking-down nuclear plant average less than a normal day’s dose (which is to say, they’re getting less than twice the normal daily dose that you get simply by living on the surface of the Earth). They’re less than you get from a dental x-ray, and much less than you get by flying on a jet from New York to Los Angeles.

It’s true that a relatively small number of workers at the plant are getting much higher doses, but the danger to the mass population is quite low. Meanwhile, thousands of people around the world continue to die every day as a result of coal power production. Far more than will ever die as a result of nuclear radiation from any of these Japanese plants. The 30,000 American deaths per year attributed to coal average to more than 80 per day, which is nothing compared to the average of almost 1,400 per day from China’s half-million annual coal deaths.

I don’t mean to imply that we should treat nuclear power lightly. Of course the only reason it’s so safe is that tremendous safety measures are involved. We should absolutely learn from the disaster in Japan to improve safety however possible. But one thing we cannot afford to do is allow knee-jerk reactionaries to stop America from expanding our nuclear production capacity. The human toll of such narrow thinking would simply be too great.

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Radiation doses from a variety of sources.
Image from xkcd.com.