The Real Reason Cities Are Getting ‘Smarter’

August 28, 2018

By Jeff Barrett, CEO at Status Creative(opens in new tab)

In short:

  • The next 10 years will see an explosion of cities using transportation-related tech to improve traffic flow.
  • Cities are doing this to make themselves more attractive to job seekers and corporations, as well as improve safety and make dents in wealth inequality.
  • The next measure of an “it” city will be how well it uses tech to control traffic. Case in point: Mark Cuban recently invested in Motionloft, a company that uses sensors to collect real-time traffic data with myriad applications.

Last week I was riding through Columbus, Ohio on a Lime scooter, weaving through traffic during Ohio State’s move-in weekend en route to a Jay-Z and Beyonce show. The ride was unexpected and amazing. It was also the only way I could get to the show on time.

Most of the innovation(opens in new tab) we’ve seen over the past 20 years has been digital. While our online shopping and phone habits have changed, we still drive the same cars and use the same old-school drive-thru windows. Sure, your local mall may have closed some of its stores, but cities still look and feel a lot like they did 20 years ago.

That’s about to change. And quickly.

Two years ago, Columbus won(opens in new tab) the Department of Transportation’s $40 million Smart Cities Grant. Since then, they’ve turned that into more than $500 million in public and private partnerships. When all is said and done, Columbus aims to exceed $1 billion in total investment.


Why put this much capital into creating the smartest city in the U.S.? 

It’s not for the reason you may think.

On the surface, it may look like cities are investing in transportation technology—say, those smart traffic lights(opens in new tab) that can sense how many cars are on the road—simply to prevent small nuisances for their citizens. It’s awesome when you’re at a red light with no other cars around, and the light “knows” it’s time to turn green for you.

But the real reason cities are investing in traffic-changing tech is far greater than some simple conveniences here and there.

As cities like San Francisco, Austin, New York and Los Angeles deal with traffic issues, a smart city becomes a talent attraction piece. If one city has a one-hour commute and the other has a 10-minute commute, the shorter-commute city has an advantage with job seekers. Smart cities also make companies more inclined to locate or relocate there.

Plus, smart cities--combined with rideshare services--can help get low-income workers to better-paying jobs and decrease wealth inequality in a region. Sensors in cars can reduce accidents, and lights can change for quicker ambulance response times. With data and sensors, there are plenty of ways to be more efficient.

The cities that grow the most over the next 10 years will be those who embrace traffic tech to grow commerce, not just enhance their traffic grids.


When you see smart money enter, start paying attention.

When I saw Mark Cuban invest(opens in new tab) in Motionloft(opens in new tab), a company that uses sensors to create real-time traffic data, it was additional confirmation for my thesis. Cuban knows that solving the data collection issue is the first step in using smart cities for commerce.

“Smart cities are quickly training and adapting us,” Cuban told Grow Wire. “Smart cities are driven by data, and knowing the number of people, cars and bikes are the common denominator for most decisions in a smart city matrix. [Motionloft is] easily pushing this goal forward for cities.”

Based in San Francisco, Motionloft knows firsthand how many opportunities pedestrian data provides.

“Cities need to understand how people are behaving with these new concepts of on-demand scooters and rideshare bicycles and how they fit on the streets and sidewalks,” said Motionloft CEO Joyce Reitman. “New store and restaurant models are popping up that are cashless and 100 percent self-serve--think kiosks and electronic tags--which are prime redevelopment targets to add into downtowns that are seeing traditional retail empty out.

“Cities are using Motionloft data and analytics to monitor and plan for safety on the streets, viability of store concepts, and how many people are using all these services.”


Traffic data can change a city’s retail and safety economies.

The relationship between traffic and retail is key. Brick-and-mortar retail has been operating at a disadvantage for decades. Large stores with fluorescent lighting don’t work anymore. Using pedestrian and traffic data, you can create smaller, more nimble footprints and test your model. It’s the same as if a city installs on-demand scooters rather than spending billions on new bus or line systems. One is far easier to test than the other.

But let’s not forget, this goes beyond commerce and also impacts quality of life in communities.

“The trend towards reurbanization has cities looking to optimize the citizen experience,” Reitman said. “Vision Zero(opens in new tab) is a global initiative committed to eliminating urban pedestrian deaths, and as more cities commit to this goal, they require the data to test and evaluate their effort.”

In the future, Motionloft’s data could also be used to study how pedestrians interact with self-driving cars, she added.

As a citizen, I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the full picture around smart cities at first. They seemed nice, an upgrade in some ways and maybe a way to alleviate some traffic issues.

Now—as I see major investors like Mark Cuban make smart-city tech their focus, cities like Columbus make it their branding and retailers looking for a new advantage—I see that the first movers in this space will become the next destination cities. And the first entrepreneurs in this space—who understand how to use this data to create real impact—will be rewarded heavily.

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