3 big ideas for transforming how Charlotte gets around

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Transportation planning is one of the most confusing things to follow. Plans take years to develop, there are a bunch of different funding sources and a hundred different committees have to sign off on things. By the time the plans come to fruition, they can be obsolete from the start. Really hard to be forward-thinking in this scenario.

That’s why I really love a new report I just got a hold of.

Charlotte’s top transportation experts came up with a vision for how to use technology and data to change how people and freight move around. These ideas became the cornerstone of Charlotte’s application to the U.S. Department of Transportation SmartCity challenge. Seventy-seven cities are in the running for up to $40 million in federal money to fund their ideas.

This challenge was announced in December and applications were due in February, so there was no time for political games. The City Council approved the application in January without even knowing what was going to be in it. Love it. Sometimes you just need a vision and to go for it.

Anyway, here’s a rundown of what Charlotte came up with. Five finalist cities will be named in March, and the winner in June. Read the full application here.

Note: Charlotte probably can’t do all this with just $40 million, but they indicate a willingness to use the money for pilot projects and to bring in money from elsewhere to bring it all the way home.

(1) The app to end all apps

Sure, Charlotte CATS has an app with the bus routes in it, but it’s only OK. It will help you map a route and tell you when a bus is SUPPOSED to arrive, but not when it actually will arrive. It also doesn’t respond at all to real-time conditions. I tried to take the bus the other day soon after the ice storm, and the CATS app failed to tell me that the bus was not going to be running down Park Road that day.

cats-bus

Enter the OneConnect Charlotte platform. This would be a free smartphone app that would let you plan and pay for a trip anywhere in Charlotte, regardless of how many types of transportation you need to take.

In theory, this would integrate with ride sharing apps like Uber, public transportation like buses and light rail, bike routes and traffic patterns. This would also have the flexibility down the line to adapt to driverless car technology.

You would be able to input things like how far you’re willing to walk, etc., to get a customized travel plan based on what’s important to you — cost, travel time, environmental impact, or exercise. Buses would have beacons on them to let you know exactly where they are and when they’ll arrive. And instead of pulling out $2.20 in bus fare and then paying the Uber driver, you would be able to pay everything through this platform.

Bus stops would become Wi-Fi hotspots, and there would be kiosks at a bunch of them to let people without smartphones access the network.

(2) Buses, except electric and with no driver

In two areas of Charlotte — North End and University Research Park — the plan would be to create standard routes for a kind of autonomous electric shuttle. The idea is to get people from a wider radius toward the Blue Line Extension that will open in 2017.

Image via Charlotte's Smart City application

Image via Charlotte’s Smart City application

People could hail the vehicle with the app mentioned above or from kiosks. Here’s a look at the range in which they would work.

north-end-district

university-city-district

(3) Express passes for 18-wheelers

The industrial district of Charlotte, mostly on the west side of town from the airport down to Westinghouse Boulevard, has made the city the fifth largest distribution center in the country. The idea with this is to make it easier to move freight around and through the city.

Already, emergency responders have transponders that integrate with signalized intersections to give them priority. This means that as they approach a light, their car communicates with the light system to give them the green. The idea here is to give truckers the same priority.

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Andrew Dunn
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Editor-in-Chief