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Automation Isn’t Enough: TPO Pitches 'Smart City' Model To Jacksonville City Council

Ryan Ketterman
Visit Jacksonville

The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization is in the embryonic stages of a downtown test model meant to showcase the power of collaborative data. 

The idea is to combine information collected by automated technologies like smart crosswalks that know when people are in the road, street lamps that dim and brighten depending on people and vehicle traffic, the promised autonomous people mover U2C that’ll replace the current skyway and even solar power absorbing asphalt tiles.

“An automated system is just something that’s running for the most part, driverless, in my opinion from a layman’s standpoint versus [a] smart system is the ability for it to continue to take in real time information while it’s operating and therefore deviate or adjust its operation to be more efficient while it’s running,” TPO executive director Jeff Sheffield said.

Downtown’s Bay Street, which is already home to a number of entertainment center projects meant to transform the Northbank, will be ground zero for creating a “smart city” model, Sheffield said. Most of the stakeholders — the Downtown Investment Authority, the JAX Chamber, the Jaguars organization, mayor’s office and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority are “all in,” Sheffield told a small gathering of city council members, who also serve on TPO’s board, Thursday.

The key, Sheffield said, is to create a single, dedicated server where all the information from these potential projects could live — whether they’re funded by independent authorities, the city more broadly or whether they’re privately bankrolled initiatives. Street lamps and crosswalks could communicate with solar power asphalt tiles to change traffic flows, power down unused systems to save energy and even schedule more or less frequent bus or U2C stops.

“We have a number of projects and systems that are out there that are all working very effective for their own individual use, but the ability to integrate those different systems to be able to combine that data and do better predictive analytics for how they should operate better in the future… [those are the kinds] of things we’re talking about,” Sheffield said.

The major hurdle to accomplishing this lofty goal seems to be funding, but Sheffield sees that as more of an opportunity to attract private capital from businesses that would be interested in getting access to broad city infrastructure data or testing prototypical technology they may want to manufacture and sell to other cities in the future.

City Councilwoman Lori Boyer reminded Sheffield Thursday that with so many moving parts, (?) the logistics require the same kind of deliberate collaboration between stakeholders — like city council, independent authorities and the chamber — as he envisions for Bay Street.

“When one speaks about taking lanes out of service or dedicating them for specific purposes or things like that, it sometimes impacts the associated development opportunities and so we were just saying we don’t know what it is. So, we want to have an opportunity to think about it and look at it and talk to our appropriate staff and bring everyone together for that kind of perspective,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires all cities with a population of 50,000 people or more to have an organization like TPO to help plan for current and future infrastructure needs.

The Bay Street project, which is far from a sure thing Sheffield said, is just a small piece in an overall regional overhaul the TPO envisions as part of its smart region initiative that’s meant to not only make city life more efficient, but safer for pedestrians.

Sheffield will be in Washington, D.C. next week pitching his idea to the U.S. DOT and Florida’s congressional delegation.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.