50 years ago, Walter Cronkite announced that Chattanooga, TN had the dirtiest air in America. But then Chattanooga started investing in blazing fast internet service and now the city is considered a model Smart City to watch.
In this episode of POLICYSMART, we speak with Chattanooga’s Smart Cities Director, Kevin Comstock. He shares with us the tech that created the Chattanooga Smart City and that keeps the city growing.
Also check out his #talkITS magazine article, The Chattanooga Flavor of Smart Cities.
Robert (00:03) From GRIDSMART Technologies, this is POLICYSMART. I’m Robert Johnson. This episode we’re talking about what happens when a city invests in blazing fast Internet service almost before it was a thing and how offering 10 gig speed can be the catalyst for creating a smart city. 50 years ago, Walter Cronkite announced on the CBS evening news that Chattanooga, Tennessee had the dirtiest air in America. Then quoting the EPA. Today it’s considered a smart city on the rise. So what happened? Gigabit speed internet came to the city more than 10 years ago, and its leaders have been working ever since to do all the right things. Riding the tech wave, giving New York, Silicon Valley, and Austin a run for their money. Kevin Comstock is Chattanooga Smart Cities Director working from his position within the city’s transportation department. We spoke with him recently about the tech that keeps Chattanooga going and growing.
Kevin (01:02) Yeah, the kind of the best analogy I can come up with is every city is going to be facing the challenges of connected and autonomous vehicles. I’m the guy who has to work all of that out.
Robert (01:14) That sounds like an easy job.
Kevin (1:17) Ha ha. Not quite.
Robert (01:18) Well how is it not easy? Tell us, tell us what it involves.
Kevin (01:22) Well, the challenges are many. We have an aging infrastructure. There’s technological challenges from that perspective. Making sure that the sheer assets that are out there on the street are capable of tackling some of these extra technical things that we ask them to do, like communicate with other devices. We have a point where we’re trying to develop our internal staff up to get them the training that they need on their various devices out there and make good, prudent decisions that have a good impact on the city’s overall operations to safety, the efficiencies within the system to keep, um, to keep the cost down, uh, and uh, to help, you know, create a better sense of place here.
Robert (02:12) You’ve been on this case for about a year and a half.
Kevin (02:17) This is this correct. I started in January of 2018.
Robert (02:21) But Chattanooga has been working on becoming a smart city for a long time. What I’ve read, it all goes back to 2010 when gigabyte Internet service came to town. Is that right?
Kevin (02:33) Oh, this is true. In 2000 and, I guess it was about 2008 when it originally started the electric utility here, the Electric Power Board, is an authorized entity of the city that distributes power here in the city. And they began to look at the opportunities of a fiber network that supported the electrical network, um, by, uh, by, by giving them technologies or providing them with technologies that can allow them to switch on and off various switches throughout the area to keep power off as much as possible during catastrophic events like weather events, tornadoes, those sorts of things. Uh in 2010, they rolled out the major port print of that and began providing that, uh, that that work to private entities. And the city of course got the benefit of that also, uh, at that particular point in time where we connected about 200 of our 340 signal signalized intersections out there. And so that we could communicate with them, monitor them, uh, help with efficiencies and traffic flow through them all built on this basic network that EPB had put in, as a result, um, that network today, um, have increased. They’ve got, it’s been in place just about 10 years now. And given the city of tremendous benefit and a number of areas and economically speaking as well as from a technology perspective, a crib and salon, a lot of companies to come into town and experiment and do things where that backbone being present helps them tremendously. So it was a pretty good investment that is continuing to return benefits.
Robert (4:31) And it’s all because Chattanooga has amazingly fast Internet service.
Kevin (04:37) That’s correct. Where you provide up to 10 Gig, to the home now.
Robert (04:42) And you can afford it too. It’s not thousands of dollars a month.
Kevin (04:46) No. Um, the standard service here is a 300 megabits and that’s, um, I don’t know. I think if I spent $47 a month and the one Gig is like 67 a month and the 10 Gig tend to go a little bit more, but it’s under 200 a month.
Robert (05:04) And the cable company is not a sponsor of this podcast. We’re just giving people a flavor for the economic benefits that come from having the infrastructure already installed. Right?
Kevin (05:16) This is true, it’s helped us with a lot of initiatives including um, starting to build our collaborative here to, to, to, to address some of these smart city issues.
Robert (05:26) You deal as you mentioned at the beginning with the transportation aspects of all of this. What has been the biggest benefit? It’s the signal coordination, I guess at this point? Or are there other things that have come out of it in the last nine or 10 years?
Kevin (05:42) Well, I think that the, the being able to communicate with the signal system allows us to do things that help in managing that effort. Usually in most government agencies, the one of the number one complaints were given about traffic flows, particularly during peak hours. And this allows us to, this network allows us to monitor the vast majority of our signal and make sure that they’re operating efficiently, that there’s no problems out there. Um, most of the equipment we have nowadays Kinda sends us a health check to kind of let us know that it’s working prompt fine. And, um, we can adjust timings if there’s a problem. Uh, we can, we can do all sorts of things from our centralized location and that, that network out there.
Robert (06:32) Many cities around the country have traffic management centers. They’ve got cameras and sensors and all of the bells and whistles. But how many of them have as many signals as Chattanooga connected to the network and operating at that speed. Do you know, is this rare?
Kevin (06:49) It is rare. There are several cities out there, a few of them now that are beginning to develop their own Gig networks, whether it’s city operated or through some um, service, but it’s becoming more prevalent now. Um, I know of a couple of here in Tennessee that are actually operating on a good gig network and as these technologies kind of get tested out and formulated and better technology has developed to help us and exercising various activities, um, in the costs come down, we can, we can expect to see more of them. Um, very, very soon.
Robert (07:30) Have you done anything else with the network that benefits people as they move about the city all day long? Any other transportation enhancements you’ve made because of it?
Kevin (07:47) Well, we’ve actually introduced something we are calling the Smart City Test Bed. It is a corridor on Martin Luther King Boulevard here in Chattanooga. That’s about a mile and a quarter long. There’s 8 Intersections along that corridor with the city working with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and their center for Urban Informatics and progress have been working on the points from other technologies along there like a lidar, radar, some different video sensing equipment, some acoustic detection equipment as well as some air quality sensors to understand how transportation or how traffic moves in a corridor or in an urban corridor. The benefit to this is like pedestrians. Very few of the technologies that are out there for traffic signals actually can detect pedestrians as they move through a zoned or through a city. This equipment that we’ve installed out there have the ability to identify that people are there. It cannot see any features of that individual. But can give us an inventory or a count of how many people are out there.
Kevin (08:56) We can begin to understand how people move through the city. And a very important aspect of that is to be able to detect the, we’ll call it a near miss incidents where a vehicle is very close to a pedestrian or a bicyclist. Um, typically in, in safety applications along the corridor, we’d have to go back to crash data to establish a, a paradigm of what what’s been going on in that network with this particular technology and we can start to pick out near miss incidents. That gives us a lot more data points to look at and make better decisions from. So, uh, we think that this is a good step forward and use of the technology and understanding what kind of benefits we can see from that.
Robert (09:48) Especially in an urban corridor. Not everyone’s driving a car, they’re on these electronic scooters. They’re on the bicycles that have batteries on them. They’re moving in a lot of different ways. You’re trying to capture all of that so you can better plan not just that 1.2 mile stretch of roadway, but the whole community.
Kevin (10:08) Yeah. We developed the algorithm to kind of review these sorts of things in an urban envrionment, and then I can take that information and deploy it elsewhere across the city and check it against that algorithm and make sure that we have a valid output but once it’s in place in one corridor I can apply it to other corridors pretty easily.
Robert (10:28) How does the smart city concept lay over this idea? Can you explain that for us or help us see the connection?
Kevin (10:39) Well the basics behind Smart City technology is exactly that. The use of the technologies to provide insights and information that we wouldn’t typically get through. Let’s say like my traffic system. We’re using other sensors to help understand the dynamics that are out there and integrating the data outputs from those different sensors, plus my traffic system plus some other external type things and kind of getting a better understanding or more clear picture of what the dynamics are along with specific corridor for us here using um, using data responsibly, making sure that we’re making good decisions from, from, from the use of that data. Things that help enhance quality of life and safety. Basic public safety are very, very good efforts and this technology and we think we can start to do a lot of good work with these sorts of things.
Robert (11:38) How does all of this learning and this experience that you and others on the team there at the city are gathering day to day, how does it all contribute toward the next big thing, which is AV?
Kevin (11:53) Well, um, it’s been long, long been my opinion that we, we actually have to go through a connected vehicle state before we get to full autonomous vehicles. You can begin to see that now with different automotive manufacturers that are creating um, uh, vehicles that have uh, um, self-aware braking systems or our crash avoidance systems. Um, basically this connected vehicle piece of that is, um, if we know that we have a vehicle in the corridor that is one of these smarter vehicles and if I have a smart infrastructure in place, where the traffic signal system is actually communicating with that car and that car is communicating with the signal, there’s going to be the opportunity at some point in time to say, hey, the signal would tell the car that we’re getting ready to turn red here and the car will begin to put the brakes on as a result of that. These are the sorts of things that I think we can see coming soon. As we get into developing things out further, uh, these systems will get better. So that autonomy, the autonomy and the vehicle can, can, can take over and provide a better, more secure sense in these corridors. Um, theoretically there’s going to be a time at some point in the future, warm and not even have traffic signals with the cars will be able to communicate, fast enough to each other. Um, that won’t have conflict out there at all.
Robert (13:23) I am envisioning that opening scene from the Jetsons, although everyone’s on the ground instead of up in space. Haha.
Kevin (13:31) Pretty much.
Robert (13:31) And that scares me a little, but I think I’ll get used to it.
Kevin (13:34) To be honest with you the validity of what we’re trying to do here with the test bed is to validate some of these technologies and in a sense be able to certify these things so that we can make sure that they’re safe for the general public before we deploy them in some grandeur fashion. Uh, it’s kinda crawling before you walk and walking before you run kind of thing. We’re, we’re taking the small steps now to make sure that the things that we’re doing are valid and have value in our system and are safe for the public. They don’t introduce additional burdens or are problems. Uh, and as we develop these things out, we’re going to get a better sense a longterm or how implementable these are and not all here but in other cities around the country. Because one of the key things that we have to think about it, the fact that you know, if you, if you buy a autonomous vehicle and in Cleveland, Ohio and want to drive it to Chattanooga and you’re going to want those systems to work here and vice versa, we buy our vehicle here, you want to want them to work in Cleveland.
Robert (14:37) Connectivity of the vehicle is made possible Of course by that infrastructure that you have in place or that you are developing further starting with that gigabit system going forward, what is your prediction for some of these technologies to be in use there in your community? Are you three to five years out on that or do you know?
Kevin (15:06) No, there’s some of the technologies that we’re looking at, that we’re actually going to be testing out this summer. One of the things in the previous statements is the fiber network that we have here is our backbone is going to be a supporting technology for overall autonomous connected vehicle environment. There will be other forms of technology like dedicated short range communications is one that federal government is promoting between the communications between vehicles and the infrastructure and the other one that’s starting to appear is the 5G network because evidently it has the capacity to handle the massive amount of data that’s going to be transferred between the two devices over time. Um, and that’s, that’s a big perspective of what we’re trying to look at it as far as near term, we are looking actively at some different projects that we can do here in our test bed that help develop or help develop some of those texts, types of technologies. The communications between the signal system and a vehicle is one of them.
Robert (16:55) What’s been the public reaction to this vision?
Kevin (16:59) Well, on our particular corridor, that was one of the things that we had great concern with engaging with the public. You know, you start to introduce a bunch of technology on a, on a pole out there and people were kind of cautious about what all that represents. We held public meetings where the businesses and the individual on a corridor so they understood exactly what the technology was, what was being used for, but let them see what we’re doing. We’ve been very transparent through this process because we want to see, we want people to approach these things. Are these things to almost become just invisible to them in some sense. Um, we don’t want them to change their behavior because there’s, there’s a camera out there and they’ve, you know, they don’t want to be captured by it. In some fashion. It’s not that we’re utilizing this information for any kind of enforcement type of issue where using the technology to do nothing more than understand that an individual, we have no idea man, woman or child that was in that corridor and move from point A to point B, nothing else about them as it saved or are contained in any fashion.
Kevin (18:06) So we hold public security and public information to a very high degree of insulation from, you know, just being disbursed and your passion. But the public has been pretty supportive of the program. They’re beginning to see more of these things occurring. Many of them ask, what are we doing to kind of help in this effort? And you know, of course we do promote some of the activities we’re doing. Like I’m like the testbed, but it’s a good representation of what the community can do when it comes together.
Robert (18:37) The idea of a smart city goes way beyond your piece of it. There in Chattanooga, there are efforts to bring more tech companies in, there are jobs being created. Uh, it’s, it’s cutting across all aspects of what the city’s doing. So I assume that people must be getting into this a little bit. You know, they’re seeing the community evolve from where it was 50 years ago into something that is a cool and futuristic in a lot of ways.
Kevin (19:12) Very much so. One of the things we’ve done here recently and it’s been formalized since last October of 2018, is we developed Chattanooga’s smart community collaborative, it is the local power board, ETB, the city of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, the county that we’re represented in, representation from an organization called the Enterbright center, which is basically a think tank and incubator for local business to kind of develop and flourish here along with the school, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and all of the colleges that that represents, which includes medical and the data science center along with Erlanger Hospital. So, so much it’s like the seventh largest in the country. That group of core individuals kind of have set some visions out there that mobility, health and energy, our primary tenants of what we want to try to address here in Chattanooga. We’ve got partners that, that are starting to come together from different research institutes such as the University of Tennessee, but we’ve been working with Oak Ridge national labs, the national renewable energy lab and Colorado. We’re working with Vanderbilt University we’ve done some work with Georgia tech before and we’re starting to do quite a bit of work through some more private nonprofit entity such as metro labs and US ignite and association with the National Science Foundation and Washington. So there’s been a lot of interest in how we are approaching this problem, this set of problems from a very broad perspective to bring in the partners that we need to bring them to and have a predetermined set of agreements already in place to work together and help before these initiative.
Robert (21:09) Do you get requests from other cities around the country wanting to know what you’re doing and how you did it.
Kevin (21:15) Constantly. That is a constant.
Robert (21:18) I assume you’re happy to share though. I mean it’s a good story, right?
Kevin (21:22) [laughs] Yeah. We are. I think the true nature of what we’re trying to accomplish, is what we call it replicability just as I was mentioning earlier, if you’re in Chicago or New York City or Chattanooga, your devices, your cars, your technology that you want to add, you want them to work the same here as there. Just the universality of of what we’re trying to do and that takes some coordination and some collaboration. The way things are kind of developing out right now. Handful of cities are working on, on different projects. Um, maybe approaching it, the technology’s a little bit different. Maybe approaching how they’re implementing certain paintings or adding or subtracting from devices. We’re, we’re not, we’re not saying that our system is perfect or the best, um, we’re just saying this is what we’ve done. These are the sensors and the technologies that we have out there. If you want to test the device here in our test bed, you’re welcome to come here and, and, and, and work on it. We’ll openly share the information with you to help you develop your product or your technology that you, that you are considering so that it is better for the country as a whole.
Robert (22:43) Looking around your desk as we’ve had this conversation, what is next? What will the rest of us see coming from Chattanooga on this topic in the next three to six months? By the end of this year, let’s say anything?
Kevin (23:00) Well, our partnerships that we’ve been working on with places like Oak Ridge national labs and national renewable energy lab in Colorado, we’ve been working with them to develop what’s called a digital twin. It’s a basic computer model of the city of Chattanooga. And we’ve been working on that with them now for probably eight or nine months. Um, we are expecting the first versions of that later this summer. It will give us a basic digital model that we can work with. So as I mentioned earlier, if some somebody, some organization wants to test the technology in our, in our urban environment, rather than just throwing it out there on the street and seeing what happens, we have the ability to actually model this into our, our digital twin and find out if it is to be supported by our network. Uh, whether it’s that safety check kind of thing. Uh, well we’re making sure that the technology is, is a good working technology before we’re actually deployed on the street. So, um, I think that’s probably going to be one of the first things that comes out of Chattanooga later this summer.
Robert (24:15) We will be watching for that. Kevin Comstock. Thanks for taking the time. This has been great and it makes me want to come visit Chattanooga now.
Kevin (24:23) You’re more than welcome anytime!
Robert (24:28) links to Kevin’s projects as well as contact information can be found in the show notes for this episode that does it for this edition of POLICYSMART. If you like our show, be sure to share it with your colleagues. You can also leave us a rating and a review. Those are helpful and much appreciated. If you have a question or comment, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. POLICYSMART is a production of GRIDSMART technologies. Next Time POLICYSMART host, Regina Hopper is here with insights from Washington DC covering ITS America’s 2019 annual meeting. If you can’t be there, be here June 6th for the latest from the industry’s biggest event. I’m Robert Johnson. We’ll see you then.