Racing to the finish line in the Smart City Challenge

April 18, 2016
By Mayor Steve Adler

At first glance, a federal grant about technological innovations for mobility might not have much to do with racial equality in Austin, Texas. After all, Austin is one of seven finalists for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, a $50-million competition to use technology to make mobility safer, cheaper, cleaner, and more effective for everyone – not just some. But as much as winning the Smart City Challenge would help Austin with mobility, it would also have a transformative impact on entire communities in my city that have never equally shared in our prosperity.

There are two ways Austin could craft our final application for the Smart City Challenge that is due in late May:

We could focus on what I call the shiny pennies, such as the futuristic transit stations, the automated cars, and the traffic lights that automatically adjust to weather and congestion. They’re even talking about apps that can tell you where open parking spaces are so you don’t have to drive around looking for them. We’re talking about really cool stuff here, but that’s not how our final application is going to read.

When we write our final proposal, we will talk about how our top priority is making sure people can access work, school, and healthcare. Our proposal will begin with communities living on the formerly segregated east side of town called the Eastern Crescent. We will talk about people who were recently pushed out of Austin because it has become unaffordable, and how we will reintegrate them back into the flow of the city with more mobility options. The test for our success in the Smart City Challenge will not be whether we can design the most sparkling technological toys. The test will be whether a senior citizen the Eastern Crescent can get to her doctor without having to take a bus two hours in each direction.

It is only by providing equal access that we will ever get on equal footing. We don’t have a shot at racial equality without everyone equally and equitably benefiting from the services the city offers. The Smart City Challenge is not about turning Austin into an ever-more-perfect utopia. It’s about becoming an ever-more-equal city by creating opportunities and greater mobility for the people who are often last in line for the next big thing. This is less about transportation than it is about transformation.

The Smart City Challenge is also a concrete tool we can use to create equitable, sustainable, and transformative economic development in the Eastern Crescent. And if we win, we not only know when the next economic boom is happening but what those jobs will be, when they’ll be created, and whom we have to train for these jobs. This could – no, this is – the inflection point we need in our affordability crisis.

Imagine an economic boom that provided real ladders of opportunity into the middle class. We could even create a STEM institute focused on the Eastern Crescent that sets today’s middle school student getting free lunch on a path to a Smart City job after college that instantly puts him or her into the middle class. And we accomplish all this with a program that provides better transportation options to underserved neighborhoods.

Austin is the golden goose that has been laying an egg with some communities for a long time. It’s time for this city’s communities of color to share fully in Austin’s economic opportunities. It’s exciting to imagine transportation innovations that reduce traffic congestion, but I’m as excited to imagine an economic boom that redresses inequities by lifts up the people who are usually left behind. I want the Smart City Challenge to be their ladder of opportunity.

The opportunity to create a more mobile and a more equitable Austin is so important that even if Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx does not pick us to win the Smart City Challenge we will still pursue these technological mobility innovations. Austin we will never be a first-class city if we keep treating our communities of color like second-class citizens. If we don’t create economic equality then we will never begin to achieve racial equality.

I like to say that innovation is in Austin’s DNA, but realizing the untapped potential of an entire community is the innovation we have never tried, and it’s the one I think Austin desperately needs. Austin is a success story, but it’s far from finished. Achieving racial equality by creating economic equality is what’s missing. That’s been our fault for too long. But now, it’s our opportunity.

Adler is the mayor of Austin, Texas