Oftentimes, community growth brings to mind increased traffic congestion. With more vehicles on the road, infrastructure improvements are necessary as seen through the current smart development of the JAX region’s federal, state and city roads. However, these improvements are only one solution to address the transportation challenges of a thriving economy. New technologies that are data driven and highly automated have the potential to make roads and transit systems safer, greener and more efficient.
As such, Northeast Florida is leading the way in its efforts to become the nation’s first Smart Region. Inspired by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, the Smart Region Master Plan builds on previous master plans created by the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization (North Florida TPO). The plan identifies and implements new and emerging technologies to collect, analyze and apply data from multiple sources to enhance the region’s livability and ultimately create a safer, more efficient and more reliable transportation system.
“By leveraging emerging technologies, whether they be in smart lighting, smart metering or pedestrian sensors, the data collected gives us the ability to study the analytics and solve community issues in a more comprehensive way,” said North Florida TPO Executive Director Jeff Sheffield. “Through this initiative, the JAX region is able to meet public and private transportation needs, compete in the global economy and improve the region’s economic competitiveness, sustainability and quality of life.”
Overall, the plan’s vision includes improving travel time reliability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing ladders of opportunity, eliminating fatalities and growing North Florida as the figure below shows. The proposed projects within those objectives focus on local intelligence, electrification, services and data management system.
One of these projects, electrification, has been in the test phase for the last year. Jacksonville is one of only 11 American cities proactively leading the way in driverless technology for public transportation with self-driving or autonomous vehicles (AVs). The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), has been testing AVs in preparation for an overhaul of the Jacksonville Skyway Express, the downtown monorail. The Ultimate Urban Circulator, or U2C program, proposes to modernize and expand the Skyway using next generation innovation. Currently, the U2C is being reviewed on several test track locations.
In addition to getting the public comfortable with driverless technology, JTA’s U2C AV Test and Learn Track, located near Jacksonville’s Sports & Entertainment Complex, serves as an outdoor classroom to understand how to operate and plan for AV shuttles as part of its overall public transportation system. Ultimately, JTA plans to build off-ramps from the Skyway to U2C-only lanes at street level, extending the Skyway network to TIAA Bank Field, the neighborhoods of San Marco and Springfield and more (see map). Linking dense areas around downtown Jacksonville, the U2C would have a dedicated path, drawing users in and helping to create connectivity and a more pedestrian-friendly urban environment.
“The U2C will better connect people and places with more frequent and flexible service, while taking advantage of new technologies in automated vehicles,” said JTA CEO Nathaniel P. Ford, Sr. “JTA is a visionary and innovative agency, and we will continue to stay ahead of the curve on our journey to provide customers with a vibrant and robust public transportation system.”
Jacksonville transportation officials are planning for future growth with other projects that will change how residents and workforce move downtown including the development of “The Bay,” downtown’s corridor of innovation along Bay Street, and JTA’s Regional Transportation Center (RTC). Phase I of the RTC is open. Eventually, the building will connect the First Coast Flyer bus system, fixed bus routes, the U2C, Greyhound and other intercity carriers, ride shares, bike shares and future commuter rail stations. The center will be able to serve 40,000 passengers a day.
To ensure the success of the Smart Region Master Plan for the JAX region, collaboration of all entities involved is key.
“We are very fortunate in the Northeast Florida region that all of the transportation agencies involved – the North Florida TPO, governmental agencies, including JTA, and the business community – are in sync and working together,” said JAX Chamber Vice President, Industry and Government Affairs Christopher Quinn. “Their innovative efforts are bringing positive changes that will contribute to our region’s vitality and quality of life.”
To hear more about Jacksonville and Northeast Florida’s rise to becoming the nation’s first smart region and why private companies from around the world are taking notice, listen to our latest episode of The JAX Current.