Smart mobility can transform San Francisco's infrastructure

The American Society of Civil Engineers has released its 2013 report card on the state of American infrastructure. Frankly, the results aren't good. As a country we received a D+, and in California the infrastructure merited a C.

No other place in the world is competing and winning with machines, technology or systems that are even one-third as old as the national infrastructure in the U.S. Right now, the U.S. is equipped with roads, bridges and ports from the early to mid-20th century and pipes and rail lines from the 19th century.

But the news isn't all bad. What these rankings show us is that we have an enormous opportunity to make the infrastructure improvements that will help create our competitive advantage in the 21st-century global market and increase economic growth in our cities.

San Francisco is especially poised for this opportunity. The City already has implemented initiatives such as the San Francisco Transportation Plan 2040 with goals to achieve world-class infrastructure and economic competitiveness in the region. San Francisco has also taken big steps to improve its bridge infrastructure to better handle the influx of traffic to and from the San Francisco area.

But as one of the most compact yet congested cities in the country, the need for continuous infrastructure improvements that can support the quality of life for citizens and economic growth is paramount. And the opportunities are here and ready for action.

From the Transbay Transit Center project to create the “Grand Central Station of the West” to The City's Transit Effectiveness Project aimed at reducing transit travel times, San Francisco is a city ready to lead the way.

One key to realizing this potential is a focus on mobility. INRIX, a traffic information and services group, recently ranked San Francisco the third-most congested city in the entire country. The ASCE reported deficient road infrastructure in California is costing motorists $586 per year. And with drivers wasting an average of 61 hours in traffic a year according to the Urban Mobility Report, the need for intelligent and ecological modes of transportation becomes increasingly important.

Integrating intelligent mobility technologies for a more sustainable transportation system is a significant piece of what makes a city “smarter.” These solutions can allow buses to deliver riders to their destinations faster, offer drivers mobile parking applications that indicate any open parking spot and centralize a city's mobility infrastructure in one control center.

There are five practical solutions that would significantly impact San Francisco's infrastructure:

• Intelligent and adaptive traffic signals that can reduce congestion daily and during special events

• GPS-based bus rapid transit system that uses “virtual” detection zones and a fleet's on-board computers to automatically request a green light when behind schedule

• Rail electrification technology that takes energy trains create during braking and either returns it to the electrical grid or stores it for reuse during acceleration

• Smart mobility that integrates public transportation with bike-sharing and carsharing to support citizen adoption of alternative transportation

• “Connected vehicle” technology that allows mobile devices and navigation systems to wirelessly communicate and warn drivers in emergency situations to help avoid collisions

But there always remains a question of how to make these projects happen. There is funding available for infrastructure. Unfortunately, it often only gets released during emergencies or disastrous events, or simply when infrastructure is already crumbling. Though no one is advocating that this reactionary funding should not exist, there is a case to be made that proactively leveraging technology that addresses operational efficiency sustainably will better mitigate future challenges and actually lessen the increasing costs of fixing something that's broken.

But when the private and public sector partner to develop solutions, it creates a win-win situation. Bringing together both city and private-sector expertise in an interdisciplinary fusion of urban planning, finance, ecology and infrastructure experts, from water to energy, creates a partnership rather than a sales pitch. Collaborations between the two sectors can allow cities to address both challenges and opportunities to infrastructure development.

San Francisco has the opportunity to build and invest in infrastructure that is going to be high-tech, integrated, reliable and resilient. Smarter infrastructure will make San Francisco more competitive and will be worthy of its citizens and America.

Terry Heath is the president of the Siemens Mobility and Logistics Division in the U.S. and is based in San Francisco.

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