Smart cities - where sensors and other communication technologies collect data to provide new insights into city management - are on the cutting edge of urban planning. With technology in development, smart cities could begin to become a reality in the next decade. However, to get off the ground, many municipalities will need to find ways to help cover up-front costs of adopting new technologies.
That is where the new infrastructure bill could play a critical role. The $1 trillion bipartisan bill passed by the Senate earlier this year offers municipalities opportunities for technology funding, including a grant program specifically meant to lay the groundwork for smart cities of the future.
The available funding could help pay for meaningful projects that can expand connectivity between city systems, leading to better monitoring of assets and sensors that plug in to traffic, parking, pedestrian safety and other systems. If you are involved in architecture, engineering or construction, there are more than a few critical components of the legislation worth paying attention to.
The infrastructure bill offers financial resources that can be used to invest in smart technology. The Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant program supports many smart-city project types. With over $500 million allocated specifically to the SMART grant program, the bill will help cities to embark on efforts to create connected infrastructure, enable autonomous vehicles and other alternative transpiration, install smart traffic sensors and create smarter electrical grids. The benefits of these types of projects are promising; from increasing pedestrian safety, minimizing crashes, promoting more efficient energy use and even reducing carbon emissions.
The bill includes significant funding for expanding broadband connectivity in the US. The goal is to install broadband in areas currently lacking coverage so they can become more connected, which is the first step towards smart infrastructure. A Wi-Fi connection is essential to ensure the smart technology can communicate with connected systems. Currently, the distribution of high-speed internet connectivity is uneven, with rural areas often left out of high-speed connections because of the difficulty or cost installing of lines to more remote locations. By prioritizing areas that are not currently covered, the digital playing field can start to be leveled.
Positive environmental impacts
There are other environmental initiatives within the bill, including investing in energy-efficient buildings and low-cost solar technology. Solar power is renewable and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, and can benefit from smart, connected sensors to maximize the cells’ efficiency.
The first efforts at attempting to make smarter electric grids are already underway, with pilot projects aiming to provide efficient and affordable electricity delivery. The data collected through smart sensors and meters helps with energy management by reacting to changes in usage through storage and conservation. If certain areas use more power, the device can spread it out evenly across different locations or at times when there is less demand on the grid.
The infrastructure bill also provides funding for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, which can help cities work towards lowering their carbon emissions. Gas-powered vehicles emit about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide. These emissions cause air pollution and contribute to climate change, but replacing them with electric vehicles would require adding charging infrastructure to be able to work at scale.
Restoration and environmental remediation projects may also affect the development of smart cities. The bill will also provide funding to clean up contaminated areas, reclaim abandoned mines and other industrial facilities and help provide clean drinking water in communities that have struggled to update their own equipment. For example, it would pay for replacing poisonous lead service lines.
Building Affordable and Resilient Infrastructure
Another important initiative is the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which creates more affordable housing and funds community investment projects. These initiatives include zoning laws and transit improvements. These changes can make a commute to work more enjoyable and less snarled with traffic and emissions, as public transportation and greener vehicle options expand. Property prices have risen about 14% due to the pandemic, making it harder for low-income families.
Innovative technology can also help cities be more resilient to global changes. Earth's temperature is increasing and the weather is becoming more unpredictable. Localized sensors can help reduce damage caused by flash flooding. Also, smart street lights can help reduce our energy consumption and lower carbon emissions.
This bill also allocates money to rebuild aging highways, bridges and roads. This can make your drive safer by removing potholes and cracks. In fact, it is estimated that 21.8% of roads are in poor condition and 7.6% of bridges need repair. For many of these jobs, there is a clear opportunity for suveyors, 3D scanners and reality capture specialists, as existing conditions will need to be captured before a project can take place.
There will likely be an increase jobs in road building, bridge construction and water line replacement as these infrastructure investments take off. If you’re a heavy machinery operating specialist, you’ll be in high demand. The bill can also help cover some equipment expenses.
Improving transit systems and access
Some technology applied to smart cities can provide additional convenience and safety for residents. The infrastructure bill has specific provisions that can directly impact local transit systems. It can improve safety through programs that strengthen rail inspection practices.
The funding will also help to repair aging transit infrastructure. Urbanized Area Formula Grants provide funding for transit capital and planning, and Rural Area Formula Grants aid in purchasing transit vehicles and funding operations. Another bill initiative is replacing vehicles, like buses, with low-emission models. The money also helps fund fueling and maintenance infrastructure.
Besides the environmental benefits, the bill aims to provide more equitable public transportation planning and operations. It offers grants to upgrade the accessibility of guideway systems for people with disabilities. The bill also aims to help those of a lower economic status. For example, it provides a greater federal share for transportation planning activities.
The bottom line
Because the infrastructure bill provides funding that can drive smart city initiatives, it may be the kickstart that municipalities need to start running with projects that they might not have been able to afford for another few years. By setting up cities with the foundation to become smarter, the opportunities for this funding to have an impact across many industries – including AEC, infrastructure, inspection, road and rail – could be game-changing.