If Kansas City isn’t the smartest city in America, it’s right up there, thanks to an innovative “smart zone” it created along a new streetcar line that has helped revitalize the downtown area.

Our smart city initiative had its roots in 2012, with a forward-looking plan that included a 2.2-mile streetcar line designed to incorporate four distinct downtown areas into one community.

When construction of the streetcar line began in 2013, we saw the opportunity to create a truly smart zone in conjunction with the new transportation system. And smart is the word for it. It features a robust Wi-Fi network, interactive informational kiosks, and the most advanced sensors and data analytics to streamline traffic, adjust street lights to real-time needs, and generally make the immediate area a great place to live and to visit.

The key was a public-private collaboration with a total of 14 technology vendors, providing network connectivity*, wireless access points and kiosks, as well as sensors and data analytics.

The initial vision was to make the Kansas City streetcar the most technologically advanced streetcar line on earth. We saw it as a differentiation opportunity for us. Then we started talking about how to expand beyond the streetcar and into a true smart city effort. For that, data is the most important aspect and connectivity is the enabler.

Incubator for development

Since voter approved construction began on the streetcar line, our city has seen almost two billion dollars of retail, commercial, and residential development in the immediate area. That includes a new convention center hotel that has already attracted several major conventions even before starting construction. Downtown Kansas City has become a great area for younger people to live and work, with a thriving startup community taking hold.

This zone has greatly exceeded our expectations. While our original projections were for 2,000 to 2,500 riders per day on the streetcar line, we are actually seeing 6,000 riders a day. Our first year goal of one million riders was achieved in the first seven months.

The smart city element has made a distinctive addition to our downtown. The ability to connect via Wi-Fi, share where you are with friends, and post to social media has been a real enhancement factor. We have a full 51-block Wi-Fi array, and in many ways that is the most critical element. As cool as the sensors and capabilities are, without the Wi-Fi backbone to connect it all, it wouldn’t be happening.

Good things for residents and visitors

Twenty-five interactive kiosks are essential to the smart zone. These can be used to access information about transportation options, local restaurants and businesses, and special events. While information about when the next streetcar is arriving at a particular stop is the top reason people use the kiosks, information about restaurants is the second highest. We are able to generate advertising revenue from restaurants, and the kiosks have become moneymakers.

The streetcars have helped reduce automobile traffic, of course, but so has an adaptive signal program we implemented with other vendors on this project. Special sensors keep a close eye on traffic on Main Street and intersecting streets, and the data is analyzed instantly to minimize idling times at red lights. In one stretch of Main Street, this has helped decrease travel time by more than half a minute.

We have also deployed a smart streetlight test project. Sensors detect how much pedestrian traffic is in the area, and reduce the wattage of the LED lights by as much as 25 percent when less light is needed. The project is too new to really analyze cost savings, but we know those will follow once the project broadens to include more lights.

Our next steps

What’s next for Kansas City? We plan to expand these smart city elements across the entire city, in steps. First we will address some underserved areas beyond downtown, and later we will also expand the streetcar line and the technology that makes it so appealing.

We know we are in many ways a testbed city, with a truly innovative public-private collaboration that may be a model for future cities. We recognize that we will make mistakes, but we will improve as we overcome those obstacles. I really do think that we can become the smartest city on earth in five years, making our government more efficient and learning things that will help all cities.

*The Kansas City Smart City project uses the Sprint network for Wi-Fi connectivity and Cisco equipment for wireless access points and kiosks.