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Emergence as Regional Tech Hub Reflected in Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge Bid

Traffic moves along Interstate 376 in downtown Pittsburgh after rush hour on a recent evening in May.

Traffic moves along Interstate 376 in downtown Pittsburgh after rush hour on a recent evening in May. Bill Lucia / RouteFifty.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

“Pittsburgh was based on steel and the economy was based upon getting product to market,” says Mayor Bill Peduto. “Our new economy is based upon getting people to workplace.”

This is the sixth in a series of profiles on the seven U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge finalist cities, which will be in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 9 to present their final grant applications to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. Read our previous Smart City Challenge finalists profiles on Austin, Columbus, DenverKansas City, Portland and San Francisco. | REGISTER for the June 9 Smart City Challenge livestream

PITTSBURGH — Antonette Hipps has mixed feelings about self-driving cars.

“It makes me nervous,” the Pittsburgh resident said of the technology, as she waited for a bus at a downtown stop, on an evening in late May.

Even so, Hipps said she probably would ride in one of the vehicles. She’s intrigued by the idea that an on-demand car or shuttle, that can drive itself, might one day be able to give her a ride from where the bus drops her off in the city’s Hill District, to her home.

“It would help,” she said.

The way Mayor Bill Peduto sees it, self-driving vehicles on-demand are not far from hitting Pittsburgh’s streets.

“If we’re not here in 2026 with the ability to order an autonomous vehicle,” the mayor said during a recent interview at the City-County Building, “then I’d be very surprised.”

Plans for autonomous vehicles are just one component of Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge application. The city is one of seven finalists competing for up to $50 million through the federal grant competition, which was organized by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

One city will be selected as the winner of the program, and will go on to act as a testing ground for emerging technologies meant to improve urban transportation.

Along with self-driving vehicles, Pittsburgh’s application covers a number of other areas.

According to a document submitted to the USDOT earlier this year, some of them include: advanced sensor technology meant to get traffic and freight moving more efficiently through city streets; electric-powered city vehicles; solar-fueled charging stations for those vehicles; and the collection and analysis of vast amounts of transportation data.

Looking beyond the technology in the city’s application, the proposal reflects Pittsburgh’s evolving economy, the strength of its local research institutions, and a desire to work across organizations inside and outside of government.

The Smart City Challenge is also unfolding at a time when the city continues to cement itself as a regional hub for the technology sector. Google, and the app-based ride-booking company Uber, both have a footprint in the city, and smaller tech firms have taken root as well.

In Peduto’s view, the plan Pittsburgh has outlined in its application is designed to act as a correction of sorts to past choices about infrastructure. Choices that prioritized car travel, and left some neighborhoods isolated, with limited transit options—a problem exacerbated by Pittsburgh’s complex topography, which includes steep hillsides and rivers.

“We want to be able to reconnect the neighborhoods,” the mayor said.

“It’s not so much about simply transportation mobility,” he added, “as it is about social mobility.”

A Port Authority of Allegheny County bus at a stop in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photo by Bill Lucia / RouteFifty.com)

‘Technology as a Glue’

Central to Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge application is the notion of breaking down institutional barriers that separate transportation planning from other areas of government, as well as from utilities, universities, nonprofits and the private sector.

A city-led entity dubbed the SmartPGH Consortium would provide a mechanism to coordinate different players that might have a role in the city’s transportation programs and projects.

“We feel that right now we’re in a moment of alignment,” Peduto's policy manager, Alex Pazuchanics, said during a recent interview. He added: “The key link is, sort of, tying stormwater systems, land-use systems, transportation systems together, using technology as a glue.”

Initial attempts at this type of coordination in the city were somewhat basic, Pazuchanics explained, like “not having the water company come in and immediately undo what the gas company did.” But, he believes, “we’re starting now to be able to take that to the next level.”

“We’re talking about: How do we make sure our long term capital coordination is aligned?” Pazuchanics said. “How do we make sure that major software purchases have some degree of inter-applicability? So that we know there’s an opportunity to connect.”

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has strong existing ties with local universities when it comes to transportation. At Carnegie Mellon, researchers affiliated with the Traffic21 Institute, and an initiative known as Metro21, work on technology that has already been tested in the city.

One of the proposals in Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge application calls for wider deployment of a traffic signal control system that came out of Traffic21, known as Surtrac. It uses machine learning algorithms to optimize when traffic lights change to red or green and has already been installed at a number of intersections in Pittsburgh.

At intersections where the system is in place, vehicle wait times have gone down by 40 percent and emissions have declined by 21 percent, according to Stan Caldwell, executive director at Traffic21. Wider deployment could lead to further improvements, Caldwell noted.

“The more information the city can get, the smarter we can help it become from our research,” he said.

In addition to academia, Peduto considers the private sector a crucial partner as the city pursues infrastructure goals.

He pointed to plans for a new park space in the city’s Strip District, along the Allegheny riverfront, which involves commitments from private developers in the area.

“Ten years ago, we would have tried to have done it on our own,” the mayor said.

But, these days, the political and funding landscape for infrastructure looks different. “Washington will no longer write a big blank check to have a major highway built, or a subway system, or even a light rail,” Peduto said. “Public transit has become a negative term in state capitals around the country,” he added.

Does he see risks in the private sector taking on a greater role in developing public amenities?

“I would if there was a revenue stream associated with it,” Peduto replied. But “when you partner with a private developer on something that’s an added benefit for the public," he said, "the risk is minimized.”

Autonomous Vehicles

Like other cities that are Smart City Challenge finalists, Pittsburgh’s application includes plans for self-driving vehicles. In the document submitted to the USDOT earlier this year, the city proposes an autonomous shuttle along a street called Electric Avenue.

Over time, the city would look to build a wider network of similar shuttles.

Uber’s new operation in Pittsburgh includes a lab focused, in part at least, on developing autonomous vehicle technology. But the history of self-driving cars in the Steel City dates back decades, to research that began in the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon.

Raj Rajkumar, a professor in the university's electrical and computer engineering department, has been a leader in this field and would assist the city with its autonomous vehicle plans, if they move forward.

During a recent interview at his office in Pittsburgh, Rajkumar said self-driving cars he works with can currently complete a two to three mile loop on city streets near the Carnegie Mellon campus, and a human driver will typically only need to take over driving manually three or four times per trip.

But some of the remaining hurdles for the vehicles to operate on busy city streets are complicated to solve—avoiding jaywalkers that pop out from between parked cars, navigating construction zones, and understanding stop signs with addendums like “except right turn.”

And there are regional quirks like the “Pittsburgh Left,” which involves the first left-turning vehicle at a traffic signal having priority over those going straight when the light changes to green.

“Driving in dense urban corridors is not easy,” Rajkumar remarked. But he sees Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain, and its weather, which can vary from snowy to hot, as an asset for developing self-driving vehicles and other smart cities technologies, with computers and sensors getting subjected to wide range of conditions.

“Pittsburgh,” he said, “is an ideal testbed.”

‘Things That You Can Fix’

Chris Sandvig, regional policy director at the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, an organization that works on economic justice issues in the city, sees promising possibilities with the Smart City Challenge. But he believes there are hazards, too.

“If we’re not careful,” he said, “we could turn around 20 years from now and say ‘my god, what happened?’”

From his perspective, it’s important that businesses and jobs that accompany new smart cities-related industries get located in Pittsburgh, in transit corridors employees can live along, where those people feel like: ‘the place is actually benefitting me, so I want to stay.’”

“If we are building factories for autonomous vehicles . . . not even in China but in, say, the rural parts of this region, we will have failed,” Sandvig said. 

“We will not have reduced our carbon footprint,” he continued. “We will have not created quality tax revenue for municipalities, and we will have not addressed our persistent poverty issues.”

Casting a shadow over Pittsburgh’s current plans is its past.

Sandvig, like Peduto, highlighted that transportation planning decisions made in previous decades had left some poor and minority communities cut off from other parts of town.

“We had the third-largest streetcar network in the country in the ’50s,” Sandvig said. “We tore all that out.” Railroad lines left parts of the city carved-up. “We took out a lot of our funiculars,” he added, referring to the tracked, tram-like vehicles that travel up and down steep hillsides. “We used to have 14 of those. Now we have two, and they’re predominantly tourist attractions.”

“These are the things that you can fix with smart cities,” Sandvig said. “Or start to address.”

‘Equitable Change’

Fred Brown is president and CEO of Homewood Children’s Village. The community group works to improve the lives of children in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, where incomes tend to be lower and asthma rates skew higher than in other parts of the city.

Brown stressed that he strongly supports the mayor’s vision for the city’s transportation network, and Pittsburgh’s Smart City Challenge bid, but with a caveat. “The issue that we have is the fear of being gentrified by the emerging growth that’s happening in the east end of the city,” he said.

Homewood is located along Pittsburgh’s Martin Luther King Jr. Busway, which features dedicated lanes for transit buses. “It's a main vein of the city in regards to economic development, access to jobs and other amenities,” Brown said.

He went on to point out that while Homewood falls within one of the poorer census tracts in Pittsburgh, “it has the largest amount of vacant land that’s contiguous and flat in the city.”

With that in mind, Brown mentions neighboring communities that have seen upswings in development.

“Larimer and East Liberty, in the last 36 months, we’ve seen property values increase 100 percent and rental properties increase 300 percent,” he said. “And the new micro-units being built in East Liberty, they’re starting off with rents of $1,300 to $1,700.”

It’s trends like these that leave him a bit worried about how smart cities initiatives could drive development, especially given Homewood’s already close proximity to bus transit.

“Everything will be better, cleaner, faster,” Brown said. And when that happens, he questions whether somebody with a 30-minute commute and a $300,000 home, might be drawn to a place where they can get to work in six minutes and buy a house they can fix-up for $20,000.

“We’re already seeing that happening,” Brown added. 

Homewood is primed for development and renewal, he thinks. “How do we take this blank canvas,” he said, “and create a smart community, a smart city, as a vehicle for creating equitable change?”

‘More Than a 1970s Model’

Convincing people that smart cities initiatives have value, Peduto said, can sometimes be a tough sell. The mayor estimates that roughly 80 percent of the feedback he gets about the topic is negative.

Some critics ask: why not just build a light rail system? “Even though there’s no funding source to be able to build even a subway stop,” the mayor quipped. Other skeptics question whether self-driving cars will become a reality anytime in the near term.

Peduto chalks up the somewhat subdued enthusiasm for the initiatives to “a resistance to change. Because it's the only thing we’ve known in our life, the ability to get in a car and go to where you need to go.”

But he believes that concept is ripe for reevaluation.

“Pittsburgh was based on steel and the economy was based upon getting product to market. Our new economy is based upon getting people to workplace,” he said.

“If you simply try to build a better 1970s model of transportation, you’ll never have anything more than a 1970s model.” And with that, the mayor added: “You’ll only see a city that will be left behind.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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