As part of the Smart Columbus Initiative, a USDOT Smart City grant that allocates funds to cities for the use of innovative technology, the Linden LEAP autonomous vehicle (AV) shuttle pilot program launched in February 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. From the beginning, the pilot has gone through several iterations: from a passenger route intended for downtown Columbus, to an equity-based model serving the predominantly Black, lower-income South Linden neighborhood, to a food delivery service. This change in project design was in part the result of an active community engagement process and an impromptu response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This case study looks at the Smart Columbus Initiative and the evolution of the Linden LEAP pilot as well as its equity focus as it continues to serve the community.
The original AV shuttle pilot program was developed in response to an Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) request for proposal (RFP) issued in August 2018. Referred to as the Smart Circuit, the shuttle was to serve the downtown Columbus area, connecting the Center of Science and Industry, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Bicentennial Park, and the Smart Columbus Experience Center. However, Smart Columbus, alongside DriveOhio, which works with the public and private sectors to help design innovative smart mobility projects, sought community input from neighborhoods across the city during the planning stages of this project. This community input led to Smart Columbus selecting an AV shuttle route serving the South Linden neighborhood to help address issues the area faced. South Linden is a lower-income minority community, with 75% Black population and 55% of the residents earning $25,000 or less a year. A strong community engagement process, led by the Linden Community Recreation, the Columbus Department of Transit, and St. Stephen’s Community House, helped to inform this decision.
In a February 2017 public forum, Linden community stakeholders raised the concern that access to the St. Stephen’s Community House and the Linden Transit Center was impeded when the bus stop near St. Stephen’s House was discontinued. The distance between St. Stephens House and transit stops caused a number of challenges to the residents who live in the 230-unit Rosewind townhouses and single-family homes, a public housing complex, as they had to walk to receive services from the church.South Linden Passenger Service
Shifting from a downtown AV pilot to a neighborhood passenger service, Smart Columbus looked at possible routes in South Linden that were feasible for the shuttle. The capability to store and charge the AV’s in close proximity to the route was an important consideration. The operator EasyMile conducted research in the South Linden area and discovered that St. Stephens had sufficient garage parking space on the backside of the building. The garage is heated during the winter months and EasyMile could install charging equipment inside. This led Smart Columbus to rename the pilot program Linden LEAP, which stands for Linden Empowers All People. The service aims to connect the community of South Linden to essential resources that were otherwise difficult to access. Given the location of the charging equipment, the route was designed to connect the St. Stephen’s Community House to the Linden Transit Center with stops at Rosewind Resident Council and the Douglas Recreation Center, providing access to health and social services.
In the short time that it served passengers, two 12-passenger AV shuttles operated on a 1.2-mile route. Passengers could board for free at either end of the route or at two stops in-between (see above map). Each of the vehicles had one operator on board. In addition, Linden LEAP was able to hire up to five full-time operators who would be selected through a South Linden community-based job site. Even though it eventually shifted from passenger to delivery service, Linden LEAP continues to be a public-private partnership between the Ohio Department of Transportation’s DriveOhio initiative, Smart Columbus, The Ohio State University (OSU), and EasyMile.
In June 2016, the City of Columbus received the USDOT Smart-City Challenge grant of $50 million. USDOT granted Columbus this award so that the city and region could test innovative approaches to address mobility challenges. The AV program was intended to be a one-year pilot, after which it would be evaluated to determine whether it would be continued. Now that the pilot is a food delivery program scheduled to run from July 2020 – March 2021, OSU is tasked with evaluating the program and is scheduled to have its analysis completed in May 2021. Funding for this new program comes from a local match of $1 million from the Smart City Grant. Operating will need to be evaluated after the initial funded pilot is over (for more information on innovative public transit food delivery programs see the Mobility on Demand Learning Center case study on food delivery programs in the wake of COVID-19).
EasyMile was selected as the vehicle manufacturer. Smart Columbus and DriveOhio spent two months researching and testing autonomous vehicles before going forward with the 10-month passenger service. For the Linden LEAP route they selected EasyMile’s EZ10 vehicle, a 12-passenger, ADA-accessible, electric, self-driving shuttle that is used in 26 countries across the world. Smart Columbus will have control of the operating system, which allows for real-time operational and historical data to be stored from multiple sources.
As the pilot shifted from passenger to food delivery service, the goals also changed to reflect the program design. However, both sets of goals are worth mentioning as they overlap in the fundamental purpose and offer insights for other cities looking to establish an AV pilot and measure its effectiveness.
Passenger Service Goals
Food Delivery Service Goals
After operator EasyMile completed testing, Linden LEAP launched its passenger service in February 2020. The ribbon cutting and launch was attended by city officials, Smart Columbus staff, and residents from the South Linden neighborhood. The passenger service operated Monday – Friday: 6am – 8am, 9:30am -2pm, 4:30pm – 8pm and Saturday – Sunday: 6am – 8pm. The two AV shuttles that served the route picked-up passengers every 12 minutes and it took roughly 24 minutes to ride from one end of the route to the other. They traveled an average of 12 mph and did not exceed 15 mph. On February 20th, three weeks after launch, a passenger fell and required medical attention. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) then required that all EasyMile vehicle service be suspended on all AV shuttles in the country until the NHTSA could conduct an investigation.
NHTSA announced that Easymile could return to passenger service on May 22, 2020. Smart Columbus looked at how to make the vehicles safer by installing seat belts and trying to limit the number of turns and stops the AV would make. However, even with these additions Smart Columbus decided that it would suspend passenger service. The COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory shutdown further solidified this decision and after deliberation, Smart Columbus decided to repurpose the Linden LEAP as a food delivery service for the South Linden neighborhood.
Smart Columbus spent a lot of time analyzing the pilot program during the stoppage of service from the February 20th incident and the subsequent pandemic. As a result, they reprogrammed the South Linden route to limit the number of stops and travel along a linear route. The new Linden LEAP food delivery pilot is now an extension of the St. Stephen’s Community Food & Nutrition Center pantry where the AV shuttles deliver food boxes to the Rosewind Estates Community Center on Monday-Friday from 12pm-3pm.
The Linden LEAP helps address food barriers by eliminating the half-mile walk residents otherwise needed to make carrying groceries from the St. Stephen’s food pantry to the nearest bus stop. Food barriers will continue to be an issue in the South Linden neighborhood, especially now that K-12 schools in Columbus are limiting the number of days kids will be at school, limiting access to subsidized school meals.
The AV shuttles have a ramp for persons with disabilities that was available during the three weeks of passenger service in February. The operators now use the newly updated concrete landing pads to help load items from the St. Stephen’s food pantry. Pictured above, a Rosewind Estates Community Center worker unloads boxes of food items from the Linden LEAP. The food items typically consist of grains, meats, shelf-stable foods, fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. In April 2020, the food pantry served close to 1,000 new households. The St. Stephen’s food pantry has seen a 461% increase from food pantry usage within the last year.
The RFP outlines that Smart Columbus, alongside EasyMile, will collect data on ridership, stop departure times, vehicle miles/hours traveled and route-trips served, battery performance, rider satisfaction, and any disengagements by the operator to inform the reporting requirements. The shuttles had implemented Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) to communicate with roadside equipment to receive Signal Phase and Timing (SPAT) and map data. Even though ridership data will not be available due to the discontinuation of passenger service, the other metrics are still relevant and will be useful for evaluating this project and can serve as a reference for future AV pilot projects. With help from OSU, the metrics and analysis of the food delivery program should be available by May 2021.
Even with the Linden LEAP AV pilot only operating for three weeks in February, the food delivery program it became is still meeting the goal of empowering community residents in South Linden. With many Americans facing hardship from the pandemic, Linden LEAP continued to serve the residents of South Linden to make sure people had access to food. This was an innovative approach for the pilot in response to the pandemic. The Smart City Initiative was granted to Columbus to address mobility challenges and this AV pilot is doing just that with a first-of-its-kind food delivery route for the South Linden residents. Smart Columbus is applying innovative autonomous technology and is using this technology to help address social-equity concerns within the community.