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Tech firms get a jump on transportation challenges
All roads in Portland lead to congestion.
As public agencies laid out the challenges they face, and technology firms stepped up to suggest ways they could help, two things became clear at the Greater Portland Tech Challenge held on Wednesday, Feb 28. First, Portland's roads are getting clogged quicker than they can be widened. Second, the new orthodoxy for relieving freight and commuter misery is a multimodal approach, including real time traffic mapping, autonomous cars, bike and car shares and even the power of pedestrians.
Organized by the economic development agency Greater Portland Inc., the goal was to bring together public agencies and private tech firms to work on transportation challenges. The two groups often move in opposite circles, working at different speeds and with different expertise, budgets and legal oversight.
As organizer Lloyd Purdy, GPI vice president of regional competitiveness put it, "This is more about making that first date style connection between public sector and private industry than investment gurus."
Purdy ran with the theme borrowed from dating game shows. Listeners recorded their impressions on a dance card; gold hubcaps sat in the center of the public-sector agency tables, for them to present to a tech firm they really wanted to work with; and independent industry experts were available on the sidelines to act as chaperones in any conversation.
Stefan Kurschner senior vice president of Aftermarket for DTNA (which includes Mercedes), explained in his welcome speech that although he has a German accent he has been here for decades and Portland is home. "Daimler is a global company and we try to act globally, but always as a regional player." He expressed the increasingly common view that in a competitive job market, quality of life is important in attracting and retaining talent — and traffic congestion is becoming one of the big bugbears of the Portland region.
First up was Miles Haladay, managing partner at 10 Branch, a development company that has a 47,000 square foot building underway in Lake Oswego. As Haladay sees it, traffic between Portland and Lake Oswego is getting worse, and the route 43 corridor, which is hemmed in by hills and the Willamette, is reaching capacity at rush hour. He was looking for tech firms that could update a 10-year-old idea, which Metro had considered, of running a streetcar along the Lake Oswego trolley line, which is now just a summer tourist novelty. Since then, he pointed out, ride shares and autonomous vehicles have become realistic, and he wanted to know if that lane could become a new type of robot commuter lane. Haladay name- dropped a couple of Lake Oswego City councilmen who are supportive of the idea, as well as TMT developer Vanessa Sturgeon, to sweeten the pot.
After the pitches the dance card matched 10 Branch up with AECOM, the global infrastructure firm that designs everything from roads and railways (including Portland's MAX) to stadiums and whole neighborhoods.
Omar Jaff, who leads AECOM's transportation group for the Northwest, said he would like to keep it as a transit corridor. It would link Portland and Lake Oswego, but it would also link to all other forms of public transit and thus support the mobility of the region.
Would that mean getting rid of the tracks?
"Replace them with pavement or replace the trolley with a train that could be autonomous. The current trends of autonomous streetcars, the advantage is you are only dealing with two dimensions."
What's hard about this?
"It's a very old corridor with geotechnical challenges, some right of way constraints and some sensitive neighborhoods it goes through. There are two trestles and the tunnel it goes through. There are multiple solutions we can apply, it's a matter of finding the best solution without having significant negative impacts on the communities surrounding it."
It could be cars on roads, but that's not a priority, since I-5, 43 and Macadam run parallel nearby. But Jaff says it won't be just a line for high income residents: "It's a transit corridor, it's not private. It's a system that serves a region, not one particular community."
It's no wonder private sector employees are confused. Many public agencies have evolved into byzantine organizations. Eliot Rose, senior technology strategist at Metro, had the task of explaining what Metro actually does. He boiled it down to transportation and land use planning, and running parks, the Oregon Zoo, and some entertainment venues.
He said Metro was concerned with sharing its data in a way that was more equitable: so people without a smart phone, with low household income or no access to a credit card could benefit from TriMet's transit maps, for instance. Undocumented people too, he said, are reluctant to log in to anything for fear of being tracked.
"Most of the services are used by white, young and wealthy people. We have a mission to make sure the transit system is accessible to all."
He said there are 12 agencies in the U.S that have interesting pilot programs, such as SEPTA in Pennsylvania's one with Uber. "We have data and staff time," said Rose.
Other data cities
Data might not quite be the new oil. It's more like water, ubiquitous and in need of controlling. Municipalities are generating huge quantities of data as cars pass through them, but they need help making use of it.
A spokesperson from the City of Tualatin, calling it a "micro-community of Portland," lamented its new-found congestion as "a direct threat to our livability." The city has a 300,000 daily traffic count, which is more than North Portland, and 30,000 heading into the city every day. What he said they need is not more infrastructure but better connectivity: smarter ways of managing what they have. He was offering a commitment of shared access to and usage of data, staff time and potential funds dedicated by the city council, dependent on a $20 million bond measure in May.
Casey Liles, WSDOT regional project development engineer, also said that in the seven counties around Vancouver they now realize they can't build their way out of congestion. He said they need more ramp meters, to generate real time data so that maps can route people around congestion. The big problems were single-person occupancy vehicles, which he admitted is how he rolls.
Jessica Berry, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, discussed county ownership of roads in rural areas. When the county processes work permits for road construction, often the paperwork is hand drawn. "We collect data but want to make it available to the public, turn it into something useful for the general public in a map."
The City of Portland is perhaps the most data rich agency in the region.
Christine Kendrick, air quality lead at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said they have a need for flexible data analysts.
They collect a lot of data in the right of way, such as traffic signal data, roadside air quality data and weather data. They want someone to pair, for example, nitrogen dioxide with wind speed and temperature. The trick would be to create stunning graphs and maps. The carrot for those present was that any tools developed could be sold to other cities.
It was difficult for the tech firms to make their pitch to so many problem-setters. For example, the Software Technology Group talked about creating a platform and letting an incubator do the work, while Reach Now, the car share company, talked generally about how good its service is for congestion and the environment (Portland has the 12th worst traffic in the U.S.). Wilf Pinfold of Urban.Systems talked generally about his vision for downtown, where a pedestrian can walk safely among slow-speed autonomous cars and electric carts. His was a conceptual shift, talking of the city as platform and the need for multimodal systems where bikes and rideshares "plug in" so that it feels like a single system.
Tyfone makes a credit card-sized card with Wi-Fi capability that can be synced with a smart phone and used to unlock a car. Built in conjunction with Jaguar Land Rover here in Portland, Tyfone is stressing that new levels of security will be needed for cars (and autonomous cars).
Taking the romance metaphor and running with it, Hack Oregon's Catherine Nikolovski joked that her 125 volunteer-group was "already in an open relationship" with many of the teams in the room.
Her cri de coeur is for open data and transparency (Hack Oregon already made political donations mappable), by bringing data out of its silos, aligning workflows and driving workflows. Hack Oregon was inspired by Trimet's report of declining transit ridership.
The group has been given 20 years of TriMet usage data which it is organizing and from which it is building an API which TriMet or the public can use. The ridership info, combined with congestion data and crash data, could help the agency to rearrange its routes in a more equitable manner.
As Janet LaBar, GPI's president and CEO, told the Business Tribune, "I think the national narrative of economic development is evolving from just recruitment but thinking about the holistic economy, how companies can be more inclusive, entrepreneurial and innovative, and how they can retain people and make them grow. This is different for GPI."
Even if none of the players end up working on these problems, she said it gives the region a chance to spotlight some of the talent. "Really the idea was to say let's see what happens if we put people in a room together to solve challenges we face when we're driving to work or driving our kids around…"
LaBar said they are already talking about reproducing the format and applying to fields such as health, financial health and energy solutions in people's homes.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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