Can a wonked-out competition help save the American city?

Cyclists move faster than the traffic backed up on the Hot Metal Bridge crossing the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Jeff Swensen.

PITTSBURGH – Uber is about to build a vast, high-tech playground in one of this city’s poorest areas.

The ride-hailing giant wants a protected place to test driverless Ubers, part of its effort to replace costly human drivers.

So on the site of an abandoned steel mill south of the Hot Metal Bridge, the company will carve out a 20-plus-square-block, Pac-Man-like maze lined with trapezoidal obstacles. It is the same place where thousands of workers once streamed in to take punishing jobs at beehive-shaped ovens for baking coal and the furnaces that were fueled by it.

The test course in the impoverished Hazelwood community is part of a broader plan by Pittsburgh to bring green housing, tech jobs and an autonomous shuttle to the site. That is all at the center of Pittsburgh’s push to transform itself.

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The public-private effort reflects a surge of similar ambitions elsewhere. Cities across the country, with a nudge from Washington, are trying to remake themselves by taking an expansive view of the role of transportation in their civic lives.

They say that they can tackle the era’s big issues – traffic congestion, poverty and climate change – by melding technology with the work of private firms and innovative planners.

Columbus, Ohio wants driverless cars to speed travel to jobs by people from neighborhoods with chronic health concerns. Portland, Ore. is trying to cut pedestrian road deaths in its less- well-off reaches, potentially with platoons of connected vehicles. Denver hopes to link tractor trailers wirelessly to prevent poorer areas from being jammed with idling trucks.

To speed that work, and learn from the places that are trying to do it, the Transportation Department launched a competition, and in March chose Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Columbus; Denver; Austin; and Portland out of 78 applications.

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In an unusual partnership, the federal officials matched the cities with government researchers, regulatory wonks, and private firms to offer practical advice as the teams developed plans to remake themselves. The federal government goaded the teams to talk to each other about the effort and to incorporate three big-picture themes: automation technology, slashing greenhouse gases and improving disadvantaged communities, which were paved over or shut out in earlier eras.

And they brought a pot of gold. The final winner of the Smart City Challenge will get a $40 million federal grant to test its ideas, plus $10 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and technology support from companies brought in by Washington.

The “incentivized prize model,” as some call it, is just a fancy way of saying something simple: Competition helps make hard-to-do things happen.

In 1919, a French immigrant and former hotel waiter, Raymond Orteig, offered $25,000 to the first pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. A procession of men died trying before Charles Lindbergh made it in 33 hours in May 1927.

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In 2004, the Ansari X Prize paid $10 million to the winner of its 1996 competition to build a private spaceship. The Defense Advanced Research Agency followed with its Urban Challenge in 2007 to build and race a self-driving car.

All three helped spawn new industries.

But the gamification of government has rarely had higher stakes than in the competition coming to a head Thursday. Seven mayors are making a pilgrimage to the Long View Gallery in downtown Washington to pitch Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in person. It’s like a wonked-out episode of Shark Tank or an amped-up TED talk with the future of the American city at stake. Transportation officials say they’ve never done a live-streamed public face-off over a government grant. One winner will be chosen later this month.

For Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, the hands-on work with cities has been an upbeat note in a job that often entails presenting grand plans and getting rebuffed by Congress. The Obama administration’s latest proposed transportation budget, which included a $4 billion, 10-year plan to spread autonomous vehicle technology, landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.

Given a “chronic lack of investment” in a stressed transportation system, Foxx said, adding an expected 70 million people and 45 percent more freight over U.S. roads in the next 30 years will be debilitating if more isn’t done. “All of these things are converging to make life hell for people who are trying to get from one place to another. That’s the bottom line,” Foxx said.

So working with cities, and helping to draw out – and feed off of – their ideas for the future has been an exhilarating shift.

“That’s exciting to people. Think about when President Lincoln put a marker down to create the transcontinental railroad or when Eisenhower decided to support the interstate highway system. These were big, seismic moments in our country’s transportation system,” Foxx said.

And this is another one.

Blurring traditional roles, the feds are serving both as seed-funder and midwife, trying to help develop a list of great ideas that prove strong enough to spread elsewhere.

“When one city does something successful, it’s the single best way to get it adopted more broadly,” said Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor of. New York City and chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, a firm started by Google that markets technology to cities and is partnering on the federal effort.

When New York’s High Line Park, an elevated ribbon of green on a former freight rail line in Manhattan, opened to the public in 2009, the idea took off, Doctoroff said. By the next year, “there were 36 High Lines under development around the world.”

The same thing will happen when a city figures out how to use technology to squeeze the most out of its transportation networks, Doctoroff said. Sensors, cameras and computers are powerful and cheap, and can be distributed widely and connected easily. Artificial intelligence can help channel more cars through the same tight roads. But, “in order for this stuff to happen, government has to understand it,” Doctoroff said. And that requires bridging the “very wide gulf” between tech people and the “urbanists” who run city governments, he said.

Perhaps as important as the money at stake, some see a shift in a federal agency that has been slow to adjust in the past.

“I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years. It was really hard to get them to understand the value of biking,” said Tim Papandreou, chief innovation officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. But with the potential for automated vehicle technology, he added, “I’ve never seen such a rapid understanding. . . . This is deeply rooted now in the federal government’s consciousness.”

Mark Dowd, a top U.S. transportation official who has been a key architect of the competition, said drawing city representatives together for joint sessions in recent months was part of the strategy.

“If you ever played on a sports team, you understand the purpose of competing and collaborating at the same time,” Dowd said. “If we can do this correctly, we will have done a very good thing for the country.”

The federal government is often criticized for its top-down approach, Dowd said. So the department left the details to local imaginations. “We built it to be not top-down,” Dowd said. The basic goal, he said, was “to make the cities the laboratories for these things while still keeping it safe.”

Federal officials also partnered with private firms that promised more than $20 million in software, services and equipment to the winner, including Sidewalk Labs, chip maker NXP, 3D design software firm Autodesk, crash-avoidance company Mobileye, and Amazon Web Services. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post. He also is an investor in Uber.)

The cities have woven local narratives that reflect different back stories and places in the nation’s development. There is a division between boomtowns overwhelmed by development, and cities on the rebound or chasing economic rejuvenation.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler says soaring growth has made congestion an “existential” threat there. Kansas City says it wants to link job-search and transportation data and provide new WiFi access along a key thoroughfare through poorer areas.

“We have one group in one part of town that reads all their stuff on email or Twitter or Facebook,” said Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James Jr. “On the other side of town, we need to put something in the water bill to make sure they see it.”

On a recent afternoon along an industrial strip near Pittsburgh’s Allegheny River, a woman walked her dog between a Chinese grocery store and a cavernous, block-long building with no sign out front. The only hint of the research going on inside the Uber Advanced Technologies Center was a maroon Chevy Suburban parked in a side lot, with telltale spinning navigation equipment and other clunky electronics grafted to the roof.

“You see them working on driverless cars, with that spring on the roof and the popcorn maker,” said Rick Tibensky, who co-owns the metal recycling warehouse across the street. He has seen ordinary-looking sedans lined up, waiting for a surgical transformation that reminds him of the part flesh, part machine hybrids of science fiction. “They take them inside and connect them, sort of like the Borg in Star Trek,” Tibensky said.

Last year, Uber put its self-driving headquarters in the city and poached dozens of specialists from Carnegie Mellon, considered the cradle of robotic car research. The firm, which some investors value at more than $60 billion, is locked in a technological arms race with Google, General Motors and others and has added hundreds of employees. Some companies say that their automated vehicles will be safe and ready to carry the general public sometime during the next president’s term.

Uber’s 40-acre test track is going in what has at times been a rough area beside another river to the south, the Monongahela. “My friend got shot off his bike. I mean, right here,” said Keyon Walker, as his daughters Makeyla, 5, and Kiseana, 7, played on railroad tracks beside Uber’s site.

Some question Uber’s ambitions and what the gig-economy behemoth can really do for a place such as Pittsburgh.

“It’s supposed to be a driverless vehicle – I don’t know how it’s going to help the people in this neighborhood who need jobs,” said Gailen Hines, a retired receptionist who has lived in Hazelwood for 36 years.

An Uber spokesman says a wholesale move away from human drivers will not happen overnight. “That transition, for technical, regulatory and adoption reasons, at scale, will take some time,” the spokesman said. “In the meantime we are focused on creating flexible earning opportunities for as many people as possible.”

The company, which is headquartered in San Francisco, says that “self-driving cars can help save millions of lives as well as cut congestion in our cities. That’s an exciting future.”

Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick has described plans to keep pouring resources and hundreds of employees into the effort. “He said to me, ‘Have you ever heard of the Manhattan Project?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ ” Peduto recalled. “He said, ‘In California, we call it the Pittsburgh Project.’ “

But San Francisco, Uber’s home town, is conceding no ground.

San Francisco officials have taken another part of the contest – an appeal for private- sector help – and barreled ahead.

They say they have secured game-changing pledges from top firms that would allow them to roll out a network of shared electric vehicles – either connected wirelessly to the roads or with no drivers at all – that would make the city safer, less polluting and more efficient.

“This is a place of genesis,” said Jay Nath, chief innovation officer for San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee. “It’s less around economic development. It’s around being able to deliver. If you think about where change has happened, it’s been here in the Bay Area.”

Dowd said the seven cities netted pledges of about $500 million from a diverse group of 150 partners, most of them private, if they win the federal contest. Columbus, for example, has raised $90 million, officials there said.

San Francisco says it has secured written commitments from 70 companies totaling more than $150 million, outpacing any other city. The precise mix of firms San Francisco would use remains in flux, the city says, pending its own competition to see which neighborhoods want to host pilot projects.

Among San Francisco’s backers is Zoox, a potential Uber competitor that has been secretive about its work developing automated vehicles. But a company document submitted as part of the federal contest contains key details.

“For the Smart City Challenge, Zoox will reveal an autonomous, shared, and electric mobility service in San Francisco,” the company wrote in a May 11 letter. “The direct costs Zoox will incur in launching and operating two phases of the pilot service is at least $30M over the 2017 and 2018 timeframe. This comprises labor, hardware, and service operations.”

As the Obama administration winds down, Foxx has emphasized the need to redress decades of federal highway policies that marginalized many.

“In place after place, highways cut the heart out of low-income and minority communities,” Foxx said this spring.

After they were selected in March, cities were asked to think more about how they can lift the underprivileged as part of their technology push.

“Some people say, ‘What the heck does infant mortality have to do with transportation?’ I say, ‘Everything,’ ” said Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther.

“We’re learning from this, too,” Foxx said. “Trying to figure out the technology in isolation is different than trying to understand how we play a role in technologies that cities gravitate toward. It helps us understand more of the specific types of problems cities are trying to tackle.”

Foxx is 45, and “for most of my lifetime, our transportation system has been on a decline, in terms of our investment, in terms of travel times, in terms of congestion,” he said. Countless cities have conventional construction plans to try to address that. But scores of them have “spent time, energy and resources thinking about how innovation can help them move forward,” he said, and that’s “giving us a sense” things can turn around.

“This is going to be an era when transportation is going to literally change in front our eyes,” Foxx said.