Michigan’s former transportation chief has some advice for wannabe smart cities

Kirk Steudle
Kirk Steudle, former head of transportation division

After more than three decades maintaining and upgrading Michigan’s transportation systems, the state’s former head of transportation division (Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT), Kirk Steudle, has seen it all. Working with partners, big and small, and tackling problems, also big and small, Steudle has been on the front lines of smart city dreams and disappointments — not to mention witnessing the disruptions in the automotive world, with three of the world’s biggest automakers right in his backyard.

Steudle headed up a department of 2,500 employees and oversaw a $4.7 billion annual budget. With a responsibility to maintain nearly 10,000 miles of state highways and more than 4,000 bridges, certainly the state has had its share of basic structural and funding issues. Michigan’s weather has taken a heavy toll on roads and infrastructure; the governor-elect, Gretchen Whitmer, made “fixing the damn roads” her major election pitch this year. But the state has also has an eye on the future.

Michigan’s Mcity, for example, has been attracting cutting-edge tech companies and global automakers alike to its 32-acre testing facility. It was one of the first major proving grounds for autonomous vehicle technology in the U.S. Since then, Toyota has opened its own research testing facility in the state, and the American Center for Mobility has christened a 500-acre site for autonomous vehicle research — where GM’s Willow Run plant once stood. Just before his retirement in October 2018, Steudle chatted with Digital Trends about what he’s learned, and he offered some words of advice for municipalities trying to upgrade their infrastructure for the digital age.

[Read more about Michigan’s smart-city initiatives.]

No dumb cities

“I hate the term smart cities,” Steudle said. “It implies that if you’re not promoting it, you’re being dumb. And it’s more than cities. It’s communities and a transportation network that isn’t just one geographical space.”

former michigan transportation czars advice for smart cities mcity test ground

Steudle points out that planners need to emphasize the interconnectedness of mobility solutions with community goals, whether or not those solutions are perceived of as being high-tech.

If you build it, they may not come

“Don’t deploy for technology’s sake,” Steudle said. “You should deploy only to solve a problem.”

You have to be able to answer the question of what problem you’re trying to solve, whether it be improving traffic safety or reducing congestion. It may be providing access to services in previously underserved areas, or it may be delivering infrastructure improvements to help local businesses. But whatever the goal, it should be clearly articulated before picking a technological solution, according to Steudle.

Take the long road

“You should take in information from a lot of different sources,” Steudle said. “Learn as much as you can about the technology.”

former michigan transportation czars advice for smart cities mcity road

The former Michigan DOT director said public servants need to bring along a healthy dose of skepticism to any new project. There are plenty of technology companies willing to sell them expensive systems now, pitching the latest trends, but municipalities are in it for the long haul. So reach out to a variety of sources, including other cities, to develop realistic expectations.

Use your on-ramps

It’s essential to develop a base to work from, Steudle pointed out: “Once a network’s in place, then you can start adding things to it.”

former michigan transportation czars advice for smart cities mcity tunnel

A tangible example is replacing aging illumination, like sodium street lights, with LEDs with embedded network connections. The lighting system then becomes a mesh network that can support other infrastructure initiatives. (Detroit turned on 65,000 LED streetlights back in 2016.)

You can’t change everything

Some technologies require impractical changes. One example, Steudle noted, was autonomous vehicle companies suggesting that if municipalities would just keep their road lines painted, everything would run perfectly.

“But 52 percent of state roads are gravel and will never be painted,” Steudle explained. So agencies have to pay attention to practicalities — what will work, and what won’t.

Look to regular maintenance

Transportation departments should continually reassess tasks they currently take for granted.

“Look at the traffic signals. We replace them every year. We ought to do that with a eye to the future” adding new technologies in the process, Steudle said.

former michigan transportation czars advice for smart cities detroit city 2
Public Lighting Authority

In fact, Michigan has initiated several vehicle-to-infrastructure DSRC (dedicated short-range communications) installations so that cars can talk to traffic lights and receive warnings about weather and road conditions ahead. Initial costs may be steep, Steudle noted, but once you establish a standard for contractors to meet, the prices start to drop. It also minimizes the amount of equipment you have to change in the future.

“We’re actively watching what happens to that [wireless] spectrum, and keeping our eye on cellular V2X” Steudle said.

[Learn more about how Honda is using DSRC and V2X to develop a smart intersection in Ohio.]

Blue light lessons

There have been missteps on the journey to smarter communities, to be sure.

“That’s what research is about and what innovation is about,” Steudle said. “So we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.”

Detroit smart city
Public Lighting Authority

One example is how rapidly cities across the country adopted LEDs in highway and street lights, only to discover later that the dominant blue light emitted by some LEDs was actually creating more nighttime glare than conventional lighting. According to the American Medical Association, blue-rich LED lighting can decrease visual acuity and create a road hazard. (Choosing LEDs with the correct color rendering index can mitigate the problem.)

You dance with who you bring

Steudle advises transportation heads to choose their partners carefully. It needs to be more of a cooperative arrangement than simply buying into a whole new system. Both sides need to bring resources to any new project, “and see what you can learn,” he emphasized.

former michigan transportation czars advice for smart cities detroit city 4
Public Lighting Authority

“Start with partners that are in your backyard,” Steudle said. “Look at the industries in your city or state and how you can help those industries with these new technologies.” He said that some communities think they’ll lure major new businesses to their area based solely on adopting new technologies, and that rarely happens.

Moving on

Although he retired from the Michigan DOT on October 31, Steudle is not riding off into the sunset. He’s joining Econolite, a transportation systems and traffic management software firm. Steudle will continue working on smart transportation projects in the future, only now from the other side.

“There’s a lot we can do collectively together in public-private partnerships,” he said.

(Replacing Steudle at the Michigan DOT will be Mark Van Port Fleet, a 38-year veteran of the department. Van Port Fleet’s appointment is subject to approval by the Michigan Senate.)

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