Austin Leading the Way in “Smart City” Innovation

Austin seems to be making all the lists these days, from the good ones (“Best Cities for Jobs” and “America’s Coolest Cities”) to the not-so-great (“Worst Cities for Traffic”). But did you know that Austin is also quickly becoming known as one of America’s “smart cities”?

The term refers to our city government’s effort to use technology to improve civic services and improve the quality of life of its residents. While Austin has been at the forefront of technological innovation in general and specific areas such as public broadband connectivity for quite a while, the city is also leading the way in more cutting-edge areas that could move it in new and exciting directions.

One of these areas is autonomous vehicles (a.k.a. driverless cars). Successful deployment of these vehicles in large numbers could revolutionize the way we get around and transform the entire transportation industry. Mayor Steve Adler recently called Austin “the Kitty Hawk of driverless cars,” referencing the North Carolina location where the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane. Our city is where the first truly driverless trip took place in 2015 and where the first large-scale autonomous vehicle experiment is being hosted. If that weren’t exciting enough, Adler has also mentioned a pilot program featuring delivery robots in downtown that could potentially decrease traffic and congestion.

These visions of the future might get the most attention, but a number of “smart city” programs are already in place. For instance, the city currently collects large amounts of data by tracking traffic patterns that not only help with autonomous vehicle deployment, but are also useful for aiding zoning decisions. This drives urban planning efforts that look to reduce traffic and improve quality of life by creating more walkable, localized pockets of residential and commercial districts.

Another current initiative is origin destination graphs. Used in conjunction with 911 and 311 calls, the graphs help identify and service street repair needs and even track crime or locate places where traffic accidents are common or where streets are most prone to flooding during heavy rains. This, in turn, can lead to physical improvements and safety enhancements.

In addition to government-only programs, the city is also partnering with the private sector on “smart city” initiatives through the CityUP™ program, which is bringing together the likes of Austin Energy and Capital Metro with major tech companies. And it’s hoping to increase transparency and citizen access by enabling virtual council meeting access for people who can’t show up at city council sessions.

Will all of these great ideas make Austin a “smarter city?” No one knows for sure, but it is clear that the Austin of the future will continue to be at the forefront of innovative thinking.

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