“Smart cities” use data to improve quality of life; in Chattanooga the benefits extend beyond the urban core into schools and neighborhoods.
Do you ever hit a long string of green lights at rush hour and think it’s your lucky day? Turns out, luck is only part of the equation. People like Ken Doyle, a traffic signal design specialist for the City of Chattanooga, are looking out for you.
Doyle and a small team are shortening Chattanoogans’ commute times by analyzing traffic patterns and then adjusting the pace of traffic light changes. So far they’ve focused on Fourth Street as a test case and reported a 12.3% drop in eastbound morning travel time.
“When you’re at a green light for example on Chestnut, ideally when you get to Broad, you’re not stuck at a red light,” Doyle said. “We would prefer for vehicles to hit the green band.”
The “green band” refers to those refreshing rush hour moments of green lights dotting the road ahead. Once optimized, the insights from Fourth Street could be expanded to around 115 video-monitored intersections. Doyle’s ultimate vision is to have a traffic-responsive signal at every intersection in town.
It’s an under-the-radar piece of the smart-city efforts that various organizations have started in Chattanooga. From the city's Department of Technology Services to UTC’s urban informatics center to EPB’s smart grid capabilities, “it’s all happening in Chattanooga,” Doyle said.
Mina Sartipi — UTC’s director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) — said the term “smart city” broadly describes a city that uses technology to support its residents.
“Everyone defines (smart city) differently based on the challenges they can solve for their communities,” Sartipi said.
In Chattanooga, those challenges have mostly been related to transportation, energy, health care and telecommunications. And it all started when EPB turned its attention to the power grid in 2008.
Using more than $100 million in federal grant money, the utility laid out 9,000 miles of fiber optics that brought gig-speed internet and a vastly improved system for rerouting power during outages. This “smart grid” is the backbone to all the smart city efforts in Chattanooga, said Kevin Comstock, who served as Chattanooga’s smart city director under former Mayor Andy Berke.
“The smart grid was the genesis of this,” Comstock said. “And the city utilizes a piece of that concept and has its own network that operates on EPB fiber.”
The city’s closed network connects all of its tech, from librarian’s computers to traffic signals.
Local government, nonprofits, and private organizations have worked collaboratively to expand the benefits of smart city efforts to all Chattanoogans.
"Chattanooga is not truly a smart city unless everyone benefits from the technology we implement — that includes students, seniors, and those in historically underserved communities," said Deb Socia, the president and CEO of The Enterprise Center, a nonprofit which is highly involved in digital equity work in Chattanooga (and which runs Chattamatters).
EPB and partners like Hamilton County Schools added more than 150 public Wi-Fi hotspots in neighborhoods across the county in 2020, and a new project in Orchard Knob will add even more. Community organizations are connecting people both to the internet and to federal money that reduces monthly internet costs. Residents in Orchard Knob will also have access to smart home upgrades and free telehealth appointments with nearby Parkridge Medical Center.
Another "smart community" application has a direct benefit for Hamilton County Schools students and their families. Powered by EPB's network, HCS EdConnect brings free internet to more than 16,000 families who need it and lasts throughout a child’s K-12 education.
UTC’s CUIP is also tapping into EPB fiber in the smart transportation game. Using cameras, radar, and audio and air quality sensors, they’re tracking vehicle and pedestrian data to find accident near-misses. Their goal is to eliminate all traffic-related deaths in the city. Right now they’re monitoring about a mile of M.L.K. Boulevard and are looking to expand.
“If we make pedestrians and bicycles safer on the transportation network and (allow) less opportunity for injury or anything like that, that helps create a healthier environment,” Comstock said.
Aside from collecting data to protect drivers and pedestrians, CUIP’s research also involves so-called “connected vehicles.” Basically, that’s when a car connects to traffic signal infrastructure, potentially telling drivers when a light will turn red or green. It’s some of what Doyle described as the “futuristic-type stuff” that can come from his office collaborating with UTC.
All of the local collaboration led to Chattanooga’s selection by the World Economic Forum to try out policy guidelines developed through the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. While prestigious – Chattanooga was one of two North American cities chosen – we have yet to implement any new policies recommended by the alliance.
While focused on bringing benefits to Chattanoogans, Doyle is aware that talk of cameras, tracking and pedestrian data can sound invasive. But he said his office never uses the live-feed cameras to track individual movement or information like license plates – the resolution isn’t clear enough to see plates or faces anyway.
The sensors operated by UTC do not actually store any footage. Instead, all imagery is stored as anonymized data. In fact, in one instance last year, the Chattanooga Police Department approached UTC to ask for video footage of one of the areas they monitor to help solve a crime. But the the staff at UTC told the police that they could not provide the footage even if they wanted to, because it no longer existed.
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