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Visions of sci-fi could become reality along Buffalo's Medical Campus

Close your eyes and see perfectly timed, self-driving shuttles waiting for as you exit a Metro Rail station along the western edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to take you to your final destination.

Envision dedicated bicycle lanes along a reconstructed, improved Main Street adjacent to the campus. Picture a cycle track offset from nearby cars.

Imagine not circling endlessly to find a parking spot. Instead, smart parking alerts could pop up on your cellphone or in your car to let you know if the parking area you're heading to is full or has a few spots left.

The possibilities seem endless as technology is turning science fiction into reality.

And Buffalo intends to tap into it.

A smart corridor is in the works for a 2.5 mile-stretch of Main Street near downtown, from Goodell Street to Humboldt Parkway, in the evolving world of smart transportation technology and mobility upgrades. Driven by the development of the Medical Campus, the smart initiatives will be twinned with the city's $13 million reconstruction of Main Street, including streetscape improvements currently under design with construction expected to start in 2020 and last for two years.

It's not the first time a cutting-edge, futuristic vision has been planned for Buffalo. Most of the previous ones exist today in memories and yellowed newspaper clippings.

So what are the chances for this one?

"It's real enough that it's already happening in other cities," said William Smith, director of access and safety for the Medical Campus. "It's a coming together of public and private entities, the tech industry and big data."

The plan envisioned for the smart corridor would be phased in over several years to integrate the latest sensing technologies and transportation upgrades for the area. It would ease congestion, improve traffic safety and energy efficiency, reduce emissions and improve access to Metro Rail stations along Main Street.

Similar plans are catching on elsewhere and are expected to gain momentum, although industry experts warn some of the possibilities will likely extend far into the future, like robot-driven vehicles, which could be years away.

"This is all new to us. It will change the way mobility is," said Eric Phillips, economic development director for Marysville, Ohio, and Union County. Implementation of a $100 million-plus Smart Mobility Corridor there, 30 miles from downtown Columbus, will begin later this year and is expected to be fully operational in 2019.

Marysville, a city of 24,000, is an important Midwest hub for 65 automotive companies and for research, development and testing of autonomous vehicles that can connect with each other and with infrastructure. All of the community's 27 traffic signals will be connected by communication devices to make infrastructure "smart."

"Cars can talk to cars. And cars will be able to talk to infrastructure," said Phillips, the project's point person. "Our biggest issue is positioning ourselves and promoting ourselves."

Not far away, in Columbus, a $500 million Smart Columbus transportation initiative in its infancy is sparking interest. It would leverage existing high-speed fiber investment to connect people, vehicles and transportation providers with other vehicles and smart street lights. A transit-pedestrian collision avoidance system and an enhanced smart parking permit system in its downtown district are also among the highlights.

Later this month, a Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus-led team will travel there to attend a summit and meet with Columbus officials to learn more. Buffalo planners also will check out a project in Cleveland and another in Pittsburgh.

"This is something that's still in the exploratory stage," Smith said. "A lot of this is very future-based planning."

The Medical Campus' yearlong Smart Corridor study – funded by the state Energy, Research and Development Authority and state Transportation Department – will look at the feasibility and availability of smart city technologies, how to fund them and how to navigate legal restrictions.

"Smart technology improvements are coming and I think they're coming even faster than people realize," said Athena M. Hutchins, executive director of the Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition that runs a traffic operation center for the Buffalo Niagara region.

A sense of what some road changes may look like on Main Street can be seen on a recently redone section of Niagara Street between Niagara Square and Porter Avenue, which ultimately will extend to Ontario Street. Soon, updated traffic signal controllers will be functioning so that signals may hold a green light longer to help public buses keep moving and stay on time. Sensors will be on buses and traffic signal poles.

City Engineer Michael J. Finn said the Smart Corridor plan will show the community another way that technology can improve lives.

The Medical Campus and University at Buffalo researchers are about to test a 12-passenger driverless shuttle on private roads on the North Campus. The $250,000 Olli bus is expected to arrive soon. Research on it would be incorporated into the planning and design of the Smart Corridor and Main Street project.

Driverless bus about to be tested on UB's North Campus

UB engineering Professor Adel Sadek, a principal researcher on the project, said if it proves feasible and laws are changed, the autonomous shuttle could assist in completing the beginning and final legs of a commute and be particularly helpful for visually impaired riders and those who cannot drive.

Tamara B. Owen, president and chief executive officer for the Olmsted Center for Sight on Main Street, agreed.

"Anything that makes things smarter and technology-based has really neutralized the world for people who are visually impaired because their smartphones interact with all that technology," Owen said. "If this is done in a smart way, their iPhones would become a tool for them to navigate with."

Phillips, the Marysville official, cautioned that as plans are being considered, so too should the recognition that technology is changing faster than anyone can predict.

"So keeping up and selecting the right technology is going to be critical going forward," he said.

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