In 2016, the city of Columbus, Ohio beat out nearly 80 other metropolises to win the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. The title is more than just bragging rights: there’s a $40 million DOT grant—with another $10 million coming from Paul G. Allen Family Foundation—to help the city put together a holistic approach to using technology to make getting around Columbus safer and more sustainable.
I’ve been keeping an eye on Smart Columbus, as it’s known, for a while now. But as is the way with these kinds of large multidisciplinary programs, the first couple of years aren’t particularly newsworthy unless you really love hearing about planning meetings. Now, that’s starting to change.
Among the projects underway are the Smart Columbus Operating System, an open data platform which will become the backbone of the smart city strategy; a multimodal trip planning app, which is the kind of multipass for which Alex Roy oftenevangelizes; and various programs to provide mobility solutions to residents needing prenatal care or those with cognitive disabilities. While all of those things are still in relatively early stages of development, Smart Columbus’ plan to spur the adoption of electric vehicles has been underway for a bit now.
Since the beginning of 2017, the city has seen an uptick in people choosing battery EVs and plug-in hybrid EVs that’s outstripped both the national and midwest regional average. Specifically, the increase in new EVs since January 2017 has been 121 percent in Columbus, 94 percent for the US as a whole, and just 82 percent for the Midwest.
It’s often said that the easiest way to get someone to switch to an EV is by letting them drive one for five minutes, and that’s been a key part of Smart Columbus’ strategy. “We’ve put a significant amount of investment and capacity to build out test drives for the community,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership. Davis and her team have assembled a “ride and drive” roadshow with 12 BEVs and PHEVs that visit places of work around the community, and Smart Columbus has also opened an experience center with another fleet of alternative powertrain vehicles for people to test drive.
“The road show has conducted 7,000 test drives to date and will do another 5,000 this year. And the experience center has done over 250 to date. There’s a great correlation between what people test and what they buy,” she told me. (The most popular BEV has been the Tesla Model X, and the most popular PHEV the Mercedes-Benz GLE550e.)
What’s more, it sounds like the area’s car dealerships are fully onboard with the effort. One only has to read the comments to any recent review we’ve done on an EV to hear plenty of griping about how someone’s local dealers have no interest in selling such vehicles, but Smart Columbus has engaged with 20 local dealers to create a certification program. “We approached the dealers as partners, brought them along the learning process, and learned from them about how they think about the future of their product lines. They’re not just worried about the cars they need to sell tomorrow, but they’re thinking about the future,” Davis said.
The program has been building out charger capacity in the area as well. Partnerships with American Electric Power, IGS, and Columbus’ municipal power utility have helped with rebate funding for public, multi-unit residential, and workplace chargers (both level 2 and DC Fast).
It might be a while before the city rivals parts of California when it comes to EV adoption, but every region has to start somewhere. EV penetration is now at around 1.2 percent of the entire local vehicle fleet, up from 0.37 percent at the start of the Smart City Challenge application process. “We want to get to 1.8 percent by the time we end the grant,” Davis told me. “We did hit 2.5 percent in November, through the course of this year want to keep a stable and growing market. Once we get to 2020, 2021, we hope we’re well positioned to take our fair share of the market.”