Portland inventor gives transit riders a heads-up on arrivals

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Customers in a rush at the Pearl District's Streetcar Bistro & Taproom know precisely when they have to dash out the door, thanks to Chris Smith's latest invention. The device tells when each transport option will arrive at a location.Kathy Russo opened the Streetcar Bistro & Taproom in the Pearl District on the same September day the new eastside Portland Streetcar line began operating. Streetcar tracks run just a few yards from her front door and she became accustomed to handing out printed streetcar schedules to customers getting ready to take flight.

When it became clear that some customers were timing their stays to hit the next arriving streetcar, Russo started looking for a solution. The printed schedules weren’t enough.

Now, Russo is happy to have local transportation guru and one-time mayoral candidate Chris Smith’s latest invention by her front door.

Smith’s device, connected to a monitor inside the bistro, tells customers when the next streetcar will arrive, when the nearest buses will arrive, even if there’s a car2go available within a couple blocks.

Russo figures it gives her an extra little bit of business. In fact, she notices customers sitting in the booth near the front door periodically looking at the screen to gauge when to ask for the check and leave.

“(Customers) know exactly what their time is so they know if they can get a refill or not,” Russo says.

Smith, a Xerox software engineer when he’s not attending Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission or Portland Streetcar meetings (he’s on the board) or blogging on his website,, has sold 21 of his devices through his nonprofit company. He says the idea came to him because he lives in Northwest Portland and has two bus lines and the streetcar as options to get to work. Sometimes he wants to know which would be the quickest at any particular moment.

Since the streetcar and TriMet already have smart phone apps with the latest arrival information for trains and buses, all Smith had to do was invent software that would access those sites in real time, add in cars2go and manufacture a box that can access the Internet. A customer buys the box for $300, attaches it to any type of monitor, and Smith can continually update it with the transportation lines and information most applicable for that site. When Portland’s bike sharing program goes online, which could happen next year, Smith will be able to include the nearest available bike or an open slot to return a bike, for any site as well.

Make some money

Currently Smith’s devices are in place at the Portland State Engineering School and at the Fourth Street entrance to City Hall. Oregon Health & Science University has one installed at its Center for Health & Healing in South Waterfront.

In fact, all the devices are either in downtown, the Lloyd Center or South Waterfront so far, which makes sense, Smith says, because those are the places most likely to have multiple public transportation options.

But the customer base Smith hasn’t had the time to fully tap yet are the city’s coffee shops and bars.

“If you run a coffee shop, your customers can be outside waiting in the rain at the bus stop, or they could be inside enjoying another cup of coffee because they know when the bus is coming,” Smith says. “I think every coffee shop in town should have one if they’re near a bus line.”

Smith says he’s never sold a product before in his life and admits “it’s not my natural calling.” He doesn’t have the time to knock on doors to sell many more. The next step, Smith says, is finding a way to take the devices outside his nonprofit model. Maybe, he says, companies who are already visiting restaurants and coffee shops selling televisions or setting up wifi connections could charge a little bit more to sell his devices as well.

“To get a lot of these out there somebody’s going to have to make some money off this, because we’re certainly not,” Smith says.

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