Making Government Work

9 Surprising Infrastructure Innovations Happening Right Here in America

January 9, 2014
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9 Surprising Infrastructure Innovations Happening Right Here in America
Minneapolis is consistently ranked among the top five U.S. cities for biking thanks, in part, to its Nice Ride bike sharing program. Flickr, calhouncycle
An artist's rendering of Tysons Corner, Va. — a town city planners turned into a green city with “revived neighborhoods, sidewalk culture, local employment and local arts.” Courtesy Fairfax County, VA
Florida has created the new Office of Freight Logistics and Passenger Operations (FLP), a statewide command center for all 15 of its ports. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A rendering of Hyperloop, the super-fast, air hockey-like transport line Elon Musk wants to build in California that will take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. Courtesy Hyperloop
A Google Fiber home in Kansas City. Google worked with local governments to make use of existing electrical infrastructure and expanded where necessary to provide free Internet. Screen grab via Youtube
A new, Advanced Infrastructure Technologies bridge in Belfast, Maine, pictured after completion. The cost-effective, lightweight bridge can be built in 10 days. Courtesy Advanced Infrastructure Technologies, Inc.
From a parking space finder to a bridge built in 10 days—these projects prove the system works.

Try to imagine “activity” in the context of American infrastructure. You’ll probably see images of freight trains derailing and bridges crumpling into rivers. But world-class innovation is happening here in America. Here’s how:

1. The 10-Day Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 years to build. Advanced Infrastructure Technologies (AIT), an engineering firm based in Maine, has designed a bridge that can be built in 10 days. Granted, AIT doesn’t expect its constructions to inspire awe in poets as did the original East River-crosser. But the bridge’s cost-effective, lightweight design is an especially important achievement in America, where austere budgeting is one of the main things holding infrastructure back. AIT’s lightweight bridges aren’t flimsy, either: simulations have shown the bridges can withstand about 50 years of heavy truck traffic.

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2. The Parking-Space Finder

San Francisco’s SFpark pilot project is app-ifying parking, making the frustrating chore instantly doable with your phone. The centralized parking guidance system uses “dynamic real-time message signs and web information” to tell drivers where open spots are, Parking.org reports. And as you stop endlessly circling in search of a space, you’ve also reducing congestion. It’s federally funded and self-improving: the app integrates live user feedback into its automation.

3. Port Reform in Florida

Ports: they’re just about as unsexy as parking lots, but they can be a thousand times more important, economically speaking. The Port of Miami, for example, accounts for 5% of all U.S. imports (a huge number for one city). And Florida’s other 14 ports are becoming more important as the U.S. increases its trade with Latin America. That’s why Florida has created the new Office of Freight Logistics and Passenger Operations (FLP), a statewide command center for all 15 sites. Incoming shipments will be assigned according to the interests of each port, meaning import decisions will reflect local supply and demand relative to that of other cities—advancing the interests of the state as a whole.

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4. Free, Superfast Internet

We love the fact that Google Fiber’s free Internet first touched down in Kansas City, Mo., and Provo, Utah. (It’d be kind of boring if they launched in the Bay Area.) Google now offers select residents of these cities (not small businesses yet) Internet and TV packages starting at $0 a month. For $70/month, you can get 1 gigabit Internet, whose blinding speed you can witness in this “race” simulation. For $50 more per month, they’ll throw in a TV feed that supports DVRs and HD and lets you use your tablet as a remote. Instead of building its own obtrusive poles to make all this happen, Google worked with local governments to make use of existing electrical infrastructure and expanded where necessary. Next stop: Austin, Texas.

5. West Coast Infrastructure Exchange

One of the biggest impediments to better American infrastructure is lack of funding. Another is noncooperation among state and federal governments. West Coast states, defying this trend, have partnered up with one another and invited Canada, too. California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have formed the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange (WCX), coordinating funds and expertise for infra- and inter-state projects. The hope is that this will cut down on the number of earmarks these states seek—since it creates public and private alternatives to the federal coffers—and it’s a step forward in infrastructural cooperation with Canada, which is a nice change from the scuffles surrounding the Peace Bridge. By 2040, the WCX aims to coordinate infrastructure projects totaling $1 trillion in value.

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6. 760 MPH Speed Limits

You probably know Elon Musk from PayPal, or Tesla, or SolarCity. Now let’s talk about Hyperloop, the super-fast, air hockey-like transport line Musk wants to build in California. In SpaceX’s rosy blueprints, the line will cost roughly $6 billion to build and will get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. Whereas California’s proposed high-speed rail would max out at just above 200 miles per hour, the Hyperloop is designed to zip travelers along at 760 mph. Independent analysts have taken all kinds of issue with SpaceX’s ambition. Even if the company never lays the keel, Musk has set the new standard in American commuting.

7. Minneapolis Bike Trails

Minneapolis is notorious for its unforgiving temperatures and snowfall, yet it’s consistently ranked among the top five U.S. cities for biking. This is in part because of its robust biking culture, from benign local biker gangs to “America’s first bike freeway.” The government has also been a big help. Since 2010, Minneapolis’s municipal Nice Ride bike-sharing program has facilitated 700,000 rides. Urban planners have contributed, too: Whenever roads are repaved or buildings introduced, the impact on bike lanes is always a concern. The City of Minneapolis claims to have 177 miles of on- and off-street bikeways. New York and Houston, among others in bike-friendlier climes, are trying to catch up.

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8. NYC: Where It’s Easier to Find Free WiFi Than Parking

The coolest idea for WiFi in New York City we’ve heard is to turn the old, now-neglected pay-phones throughout the city into public wireless routers. That act of infrastructural recycling may not be happening, but free public WiFi is. In October 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the imminent WiFying of 10 New York neighborhoods across the five boroughs. Behind five of the projects is GOWEX, a company that’s already created 2,000 “Smart Zones” throughout the city. Public WiFi will assist local entrepreneurs and keep New York an attractive location for young professionals. Whereas Google Fiber offers its subscription packages only to private residents, WiredNYC’s networks are accessible to sidewalk iPhone-holders and Bloomberg Terminal users alike.

9. A Sprawled Little Suburb Gets a Massive, Urban Makeover

Tysons Corner, Va., a Washington suburb where residents always drive and never walk, is making itself navigable by foot. For most of its sprawled existence, it’s been a loose-knit office and retail city of about 17,000 people. That is, until its city planners transformed Tysons Corner into a green city with “revived neighborhoods, sidewalk culture, local employment and local arts,” according to analysis by KPMG International. The extension of this former suburb has been reversed by well-placed public transportation and smarter land use. The makeover will help the city host up to 100,000 residents by 2050, city officials say. It was and is one of the most ambitious and successful city redesigns in recent history.

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