Cars pass over the Kittanning Citizens Bridge in Armstrong County. Photo by Ron Shawley/Wikipedia Commons.

The City of Pittsburgh has committed to developing and deploying innovative transportation technology, especially in the years after becoming a finalist in the national Smart City Challenge. The focus has resulted in everything from more efficient pay parking systems to apps that track Port Authority bus travel in real time. Now Carnegie Mellon University wants to bring some of these innovative ideas to smaller communities in the region with the Smart Mobility Challenge.

Sponsored by CMU’s Traffic21 research institute and the Mobility21 center, the challenge calls on municipalities throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania to submit transportation issues affecting their communities. Chosen candidates will receive up to $300,000 in public funding and be paired with faculty and student researchers able to find creative solutions.

“A lot of the discussion nationally and even internationally has been on smart cities,” says Traffic21 executive director Stan Caldwell. “That’s going really well in Pittsburgh, but we also want to demonstrate that a lot of this technology can have positive impacts in other areas.”

The challenge is open to any municipality within the 10 counties served by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a regional planning agency that promotes economic development and other essential services.

The main purpose of the challenge is to find communities willing to serve as test beds for new technology, similar to how the City of Pittsburgh has for everything from autonomous vehicles to Traffic21’s adaptive Surtrac traffic signals.

“It helps us identify who would be a good partner to work with,” says Caldwell. “There are a lot of small municipalities in our region that have a lot of progressive, forward-thinking people who want to be a test bed for this kind of stuff. Those are the kinds of partners we’re looking for.”

He adds that the first stage of the application was designed to be “very painless.” Applicants only need to answer two simple questions outlining what their problems are and why their communities would make ideal test beds. “You can do it in 15 minutes,” says Caldwell.

From there, chosen candidates will meet with CMU researchers to develop proposals for their projects.

Considering the funding amount, Caldwell foresees taking on two to four Smart Mobility projects, as successful pilot deployments typically cost between $75-150,000. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of doing multiple projects in one community or tackling one issue across multiple municipalities.

While he hesitates to speculate on what kinds of problems they may receive, Caldwell knows many communities in the region struggle with traffic congestion and serving populations who lack adequate public transportation options. Freight access has also become an issue in places that want to attract large companies but are unable to accommodate their shipping needs.

He believes the program will show how Southwestern Pennsylvania can become a model for mobility innovation.

“If we’re going to move our region forward as a whole, this will be a good step in that process,” says Caldwell.

The deadline to apply for the Smart Mobility Challenge is July 14, 2017. Awards will be announced in early September.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.