It was all so fascinating. Subways, trains, elevated rail lines, buses, planes, ferry boats… all modes of public transportation working together to get people where they needed to go. When Charles Ramdatt traveled through the Northeastern U.S. and Europe as a young man, he was impressed by the intermodal transportation options that weren’t available to commuters in his native country of Jamaica. In fact, they weren’t being used in most of the United States, either.
Today, as a transportation engineer for more than 30 years, Ramdatt is tasked with leading an effort to move the City of Orlando toward something business leaders worldwide have been buzzing about “smart city” status. To be a smart city, a municipality has to meet certain goals of incorporating information and communications technologies into services such as transportation, energy and utilities to reduce resource consumption, waste and overall costs.
“We have had an innovative spirit when it comes to transportation for a long time,” Ramdatt said. “We’ve been doing smart city-type projects for a few decades, but we wouldn’t term ourselves a smart city because we did not have a comprehensive approach to the smart city concept. We were just doing it in certain, isolated departments in the city. Now we are doing it on a more focused, comprehensive basis and are more collaborative in-house.”
Orlando was named one of “8 Smart Cities to Watch” in an article in StateTech in October 2018, along with Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; and Tampa. “These are the communities to keep an eye on,” the article said. “They have concrete smart city plans in place, which include not just technology but governance and community outreach.”
A smart city focuses first on its largest challenges, Ramdatt said. Orlando has identified six pillars for incorporating technology and communications for improving its services. Transportation is one of them.
In the 1990s, before people had map applications at their fingertips on their cell phones, Orlando teamed with Orange County, tourism industry leaders, Avis Rental Car, AAA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, General Motors and the University of Central Florida (UCF) to create a forerunner of what is today standard GPS technology, Ramdatt said. It was important because of the city’s reputation as a safe and welcoming place to visit.
“It came out of knowing we had a challenge and we needed to bring in technology to handle that challenge so we would retain our market share and move toward increasing our advantage in tourism,” he said. “We’ve been doing smart city stuff, especially in transportation, for a long time.”
The city is integrating all of its transportation improvement efforts through technology. These include wayfinding, public information dissemination, special event management, pedestrian safety and management of traffic in the tourist areas.
“We have so many cities and counties here,” Ramdatt said. “Travelers are really not concerned with the borders. They just want to make sure their transportation experience is good across the borders everywhere, that it’s efficient and safe.”
To practice what it preaches, the city has been investing in several types of technology that will help carry commuters and visitors into the future. Those include:
Electric vehicles. Some of Orlando’s fleet of work trucks are electric. The city also has purchased some electric motorcycles for the police department.
Electric vehicle charging stations. Orlando has set up electric vehicle charging stations to encourage more residents to use transportation that is more environment-friendly.
Parking garages. Newer parking garages are installing technology that shows drivers real-time status, letting them know how many spaces are available on each level. This saves energy that would be wasted driving row by row to look for a place to park.
Parking meters. Orlando has installed technology that allows drivers to use an app to pay a parking meter. It also alerts drivers by text when their time is about to expire and allows them to purchase more time.
Bus service. To add more routes to the LYNX transportation system, the city is partnering with Orange County to advocate increased funding from voters in an upcoming election.
Traffic monitoring technology. The city is part of a team of local organizations working with a grant for Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD). It encompasses three programs: PedSafe, which connects traffic signals to reduce the occurrence of crashes involving pedestrians and bicycles; GreenWay, which manages more than 1,000 traffic signals over multiple modes of transportation to provide a unified approach, especially for special events; and SmartCommunity, which provides people with real-time multimodal travel information whether they’re driving, taking a bus or train, or using a rideshare service.
For Ramdatt, expanding from the challenges of transportation to an overall smart city plan makes sense.
“My career is focused on transportation,” he said. “We have some innovative things we’ve done here at the city, and it’s through that innovative spirit that we’re looking to move into other areas. We want to use that same spirit and that same reliance on communications that we have used in transportation, wired and wireless communications, to benefit all of the other departments and missions of the city. I started out in transportation, but a lot of these ideas are germane to everything this city does.”
He and his team, as well as other city leaders, want to see Orlando’s transportation efforts become part of an overall strategy to make Central Florida a hub of multimodal transportation options that include not only personal vehicles but also different kinds of trains and buses, as well as options like ridesharing via car and bike.
“That’s now the wave, trying to make sure we understand it’s not one or the other,” Ramdatt said. “It’s all of these things together. Your trip may start with a car. You may jump on a bicycle at some point. That bicycle might go on to a bus or a train. At the end, you may ride a bicycle again to the Amway Center or wherever you’re going for your ultimate destination.”