Smart Cities

In 2022, Pittsburgh will break ground on a smart city plan over six years in the making

The city hatched its plan in 2016 for federal smart city competition, and now parts of it are coming to life.
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Frederick Doerfler/Eyeem/Getty Images

· 5 min read

At the tail end of the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation announced the Smart City Challenge, a first-of-its-kind competition designed to award $40 million to the mid-sized American city with the best vision of how it could evolve into a “smart city.” Nearly 80 cities submitted proposals with their futuristic ideas for their American metropolises, but only Columbus, Ohio emerged as the winner.

But what happened to the losers—in particular, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of six finalists in the 2015 competition?

Just over six years after the contest wrapped up, and on the heels of the government authorizing a bigger batch of smart-city funding, we checked in on Pittsburgh’s smart-city efforts. The city did not abandon its plans after missing out on the grand prize: Instead, it strung together millions in local, state, and federal funds in a bid to realize aspects of the proposal, which centered around improving transportation efficiency.

But building a smart city is no easy task—and only this summer will the city of ~300,000 finally begin to break ground on one of the key features of its initial vision, a traffic-management project called “Smart Spines.”

Time machine

When the challenge was announced in 2015, Pittsburgh officials were excited about the chance to use the prize money to shake the city’s reputation as a post-industrial steel town, Stan Caldwell, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 Institute, who worked on the city’s proposal, told us.

“There was a general opinion in Pittsburgh that the challenge was kind of almost tailor-made for us,” Alex Pazuchanics, a former policy advisor to the mayor of Pittsburgh from 2015–2017, told Emerging Tech Brew. “The requirements were really looking for a city that I think…we were kind of in the sweet spot for, and with a real focus on innovation and kind of technological partnerships, which I think we had felt fairly confident we could represent.”

Pittsburgh’s proposal was extensive and transportation-focused: It included plans for building an autonomous shuttle network, creating sensor- and CCTV-monitored traffic corridors, conducting pilots designed to automatically connect patients with transportation to health care-related appointments, buying a new municipal EV fleet, and creating an app to report traffic conditions and accidents.

All in all, the proposal was in the region of $100 million, according to Caldwell. The idea was that the prize money would fund half the project, while the city would figure out the rest. For context, the entire city of Pittsburgh’s budget in 2015 was $505.9 million.

Smart spines

Not all of that initial vision is going to get built, but one major part is—the city’s Smart Spines, a traffic-management system that will use tech to improve congestion and traffic flow in high-priority traffic corridors. The plan is to use a combination of CCTV cameras and sensors to collect real-time traffic data, which city staff will use to remotely tweak things like traffic signal timing.

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The original plan called for installing an “advanced signal system” in at least 15 city corridors in three phases, but the current plan scales down the effort to just eight corridors in two phases. The city has also begun refitting its 40,000 light bulbs with LED lighting, according to Karen Lightman, executive director of the Metro21 Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, but has not yet outfitted them with the light, environmental, and air-quality sensors from the original plan.

image of Pittsburgh's smart spine proposal from 2016 document

A map from Pittsburgh's 2016 Smart Spine proposal (City of Pittsburgh)

This summer, the Smart Spines project is slated to enter phase one of construction, building out three corridors to start. The remaining five will be constructed in an eventual second phase. The project is projected to cost $28.8 million, funded with $11 million from a 2016 DOT grant, $11 million in city funds, and the remaining $4.8 million coming from the state. In total, the program will renovate about 150 intersections, the Pittsburgh Business Times reports.

The idea for Smart Spines is rooted in an earlier—and still ongoing—project called Scalable Urban Traffic Control (Surtrac), an “intelligent traffic-control system” that began in 2012 and aims to speed up traffic flow and reduce vehicle idle time. The tech, which was developed at Carnegie Mellon University, has since been commercialized via a company called Rapid Flow Technologies. The company has sold its platform to 18 cities so far, per the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Upon installation, Surtrac corridors improved traffic congestion by 40% and reduced emissions by 20%, according to Lightman. As of 2020, Surtrac was fully operational in 50 out of 610 traffic intersections in Pittsburgh; city officials have previously said they want Surtrac to cover at least 200 intersections.

“We made [Surtrac] the basis for the Smart Spines concept with this idea of moving fast…That wouldn’t have happened had it not been for this Smart Cities Challenge,” Lightman said.

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