The trolley is a form of public transit that travels throughout Louisville's shopping and entertainment districts.| Photo by Derek Cashman
The trolley is a form of public transit that travels throughout Louisville’s shopping and entertainment districts.| Photo by Derek Cashman

Correction appended.

The introduction of Louisville’s “Smart Cities Challenge” application reads like a transportation-related spoof of a John Lennon classic.

Imagine all the people not driving cars, it states. Imagine residents being able to view all their transportation options in one place, as well as the associated costs and travel times. Imagine Louisville as a place where cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles lived in harmony.

However, some don’t believe the application does enough to improve public transit and promote sustainability in Louisville.

As IL previously reported, the U.S. Department of Transportation partnered with private investment firm Vulcan to create the “Smart Cities Challenge,” a $50 million initiative aimed at using technology to improve the transportation systems in one mid-sized city in the United States. Amsterdam-based technology company Mobileye also has committed to outfitting the winning city’s public transit system with driver assistance technology.

Louisville is one of 77 U.S. cities and the only city in Kentucky that has applied. Competitors include nearby Indianapolis, St. Louis and Nashville, according to the U.S. DOT.

In its application, Louisville is critical of itself, noting the city has an “often unreliable” public transit system, high rates of crashes, traffic congestion and “inefficient use” of existing parking — all which further disadvantage the disadvantaged.

“We have built a society, reflected in the design and operation of our mid-sized cities, around the assumption that everyone will have a car and will use it for the vast majority of their transportation needs,” the application states. “As a result, everyone who can afford a car feels compelled to have one, and everyone who cannot afford a car (or who cannot drive) is placed at a severe disadvantage, with significant negative impacts on quality of life.”

Louisville’s application focuses on three main initiatives: a Smart Lane pilot program, information leveraging, and urban automation.

Building off its improvement plans for Dixie Highway, Metro Government wants to test the creation of a Smart Lane, a driving lane used by connected vehicles including TARC buses.

Connected cars and buses would communicate with traffic signals, allowing “the signal system to grant preference to the connected vehicles, based on established priorities,” the application states. For example, a light would stay or turn green to allow connected vehicles to move more freely.

The application also states Louisville would add monitors at bus stops that provide information about TARC routes, where buses are, and if they are running on time.

City officials want to place sensors on buses and other vehicles, such as taxis or private company cars, to collect up-to-date traffic information as well as data on air quality that will then be made publicly available via Louisville’s Open Data Portal. The application suggests partnering with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, which has a cloud-computing program, to process the data and with companies such as Yum! Brands Inc., United Parcel Service and Ford Motor Co. to get the sensors on the road.

The final initiative — urban automation — focuses broadly on developing infrastructure to support the Smart Cities plan, such as installing technologically advanced traffic signals and building a mobile application where people can view their transportation options.

Metro Government’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation will act as the lead entity implementing the plans with help from TARC, the state transportation cabinet, Traffic Response and Incident Management Assisting the River City (TRIMARC), Louisville Gas and Electric, and the University of Louisville’s Logistics and Distribution Institute.

The University of Kentucky’s Kentucky Transportation Center would act as the outside advisor and evaluate the city’s implementation of the Smart Cities plan.

Not transformative enough?

Although the application incorporates aspects of publicly created plans MOVE Louisville and Vision Louisville, the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation (CART) previously criticized the lack of public meetings and input in the process.

“It’s a transformative transportation policy issue,” Bud Hixson, a Louisville attorney and head of CART, told IL after reviewing the application. “I think it is sneaking up on people. I don’t think they realize how transformative it will be.”

Metro Government officials have said they welcome feedback on the application and input should the city be named one of five finalists. The five finalist are awarded $100,000 to craft a more detailed proposal for U.S. DOT.

Hixson said he thinks Louisville’s application is not transformative enough. “I don’t think it’s any kind of state secret that we think that there is not enough public transit in the application.”

Officials with the city’s economic development arm Louisville Forward created a plan that will build infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, Hixson said, while ignoring the needs of Louisville’s low-income families.

He declined to say more, stating that CART is in the process of formulating a letter to the U.S. DOT. The letter will oppose the application Louisville put forth, as well as address the need for an improved public transit system, Hixson said.

Jackie Green, who formerly led CART, and Louisville Metro Council candidate Bryan Burns already have penned their own letter to U.S. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx criticizing the lack of citizen input and listing instances when Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration “undermined the community” to encourage non-urban development in the urban core and exurban development.

Examples provided include the controversial west Louisville Walmart, the development of the Veterans Administration Hospital in a suburban location, and the construction of infrastructure that promotes suburban sprawl.

“Louisville’s full potential will not be realized until we address the serious land use and transportation missteps of over six decades,” the letter states. “Please do not encourage the perpetuation of our mistakes by selecting Louisville as a finalist in Smart Cities Challenge.”

The letter called Louisville’s application “unrealistic, undemocratic and unambitious,” stating that the city has delayed changes to its transportation system and that bus riders don’t need real-time bus arrival data.

“We already know the buses run woefully infrequently outside rush hours, and in many places, not at all,” the letter reads.

John Gilderbloom, director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, said he is not happy with the direction of the proposal either. It should focus more on alternative modes of transportation such as walking, biking and public transit, and it does not address reducing Louisville’s carbon emission, he said.

“The Mayor’s vision is a nightmare,” he said in an email. “We [have] got to become more community-centric instead of car-centric.  This proposal benefits the suburbs and hurts the downtown historic neighborhoods.”

Gilderbloom said he is worried the Smart Lanes would become speedy bypass lanes only for people in Louisville who can afford autonomous or connected vehicles.

He also questioned how the Smart Lane, which is supposed to create ease of traffic flow, will affect business districts like the Highlands. Will cars simply speed past the businesses, he asked.

The U.S. DOT will name five finalists on March 12 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Finalists will prepare a more detailed application, and DOT will announce the winning city in June.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly named the former CART leader. Jackie Green used to head CART. Jessica Green is a Louisville Metro Councilwoman for District 1.

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Caitlin Bowling
Louisville native Caitlin Bowling has covered the local restaurant and retail scene since 2014. After graduating from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Caitlin got her start at a newspaper in the mountains of North Carolina where she won multiple state awards for her reporting. Since returning to Louisville, she’s written for Business First and Insider Louisville, winning awards for health and business reporting and becoming a go-to source for business news. In addition to restaurants and retail business, Caitlin covers real estate, economic development and tourism. Email Caitlin at [email protected]