Pittsburgh has become known to many as the center of smart city transportation, not just recently as a high-profile Uber test area, but going back more than 10 years. That’s when it opened its streets to driverless cars through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, which had helped create the robotics industry and had sent a driverless car all the way across the country from LA.
Today the city has four separate experiments going on: Uber and Volvo; Carnegie Mellon and GM; Aurora and Audi; and Delphi and BMW. In addition, with Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh has piloted advanced traffic signals at several intersections, using sensors that determine the timing of lights.
But it wanted to take things to the next level: combining technology, energy, transportation, and infrastructure to transform concepts of overall urban mobility. And Bill considers Pittsburgh the perfect laboratory: “We’re the double black diamond of roads with all our seasons and bridges and antiquated 19th century infrastructure.” Within a breathtaking two years, the city hopes to show the world a dramatic new picture of the future.
Recently it began experimenting with what Bill calls the next generation of sensors on street lights, ones that interact with autonomous cars (telling them not just what’s at intersections but more exotic data like how many bikes have travelled by in the last eight hours and what’s the degree of air pollution), so those cars know not just what’s right ahead but for many miles on all possible routes.
In addition, the city wants to provide hyper-local production and availability of renewable energy through “district” projects, via solar panels rather than antiquated power plants built many years ago and many miles away. So it’s partnering with the University of Pittsburgh to locate them in the likes of a parking garage in the Arena district, in a co-generation facility with steam on the north side near Heinz Field and PNC Park, in the Oakland hospital and education area, and in 178-acre Hazelwood Green (site of a former steel mill) on the shore of the Monongahela River.
The idea, Bill says, is to build smart spines along major corridors and make traffic congestion in dense urban areas a thing of the past. Funding of $11 million was provided by the Obama administration, and smaller amounts from the state and city.
Bill says municipal governments aren’t traditionally designed to approach multi-faceted issues like this strategically. Pittsburgh itself didn’t even have a department of transportation. But it does have innovative tech talent and a willingness of government to be flexible. So it has leapfrogged ahead and created a Department of Urban Mobility and Infrastructure, integrating parts of the public works and planning departments.
Just like the steel industry came about because of an historic convergence of railroads, rivers, and natural resources, Bill says the elements for pioneering a transformative new industry of urban mobility are coming together to create a new Pittsburgh.
Grew up in Scott Township, a prototypical post WW2 bedroom suburb of Pittsburgh that didn’t have a post office or library. Played Little League with Roberto Clemente, Jr, and hockey in high school (still a passion) with Hall of Famer Lane MacDonald and Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall.
In the late 70s, Bill was with his brother in a men’s shop in NY and the only other person shopping with them was John Lennon. (No word if they picked the same bell bottoms.)
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