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Portland learns how to be a smarter city
When Stephen Weber jumps from using the MAX to the Portland Streetcar or to a bus, he no longer has to worry about buying separate tickets. He just taps his Hop Fastpass, which he's been beta testing for TriMet since March, and jumps on board.
The release of the card this month eliminates the need for paper tickets. Eventually, as testing continues, Portlanders will be able to use a smartphone to access transit.
Residents, no doubt, have noticed some of their city's efforts to move its way into the 21st century.
For several years, folks with smartphones have had the option to ditch physical cash and use an app to buy a TriMet bus ticket, and more recently were given the option to use another app — with the face of a cat, called Parking Kitty — to secure a parking space in metered areas of the city.
It's also looking at driverless cars, electric vehicles, and a number of other tech projects. These are all part of Portland's efforts to become what's called a "Smart City," — which the city defines as one where "data and technology improves people's lives, particularly those in historically underserved communities." It recently has adopted policy around this initiative.
According to the Pew Research Center, with nearly nine out of 10 Americans connected to the internet and 77 percent of them with a smartphone, it has become more of a priority for local governments to catch up with the technology its citizens are increasingly dependent upon to get around and function. Some tech groups estimate that there will be 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020.
In other words, technology is moving much, much faster than it used to.
"Government has to move much faster if you think about it," says Bob Youakim, CEO of Passport Inc., the developer behind the Portland Bureau of Transportation's Parking Kitty app. "It took 40 years for telephones to get to 40 percent adoption, while smartphones took 10 years to get to ubiquity."
He says now, it's about smartphones and data generated from them.
"It's become a bare necessity of life — food, shelter, clothing and data," he says.
Data collection is likely going to be a large part of the city's understanding of how people are getting around town and using its infrastructure going forward.
In May, the Portland City Council adopted an open data ordinance and policy that aims to share any data generated by city bureaus, private-sector companies, nonprofit organizations, universities and others that may be working on behalf of the city.
According to Kevin Martin, tech services and Smart cities manager with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, some of the benefits of data access include helping the city solve problems, and giving entrepreneurs data sets so they can build products for other cities.
But what does that mean?
While Portland continues work on many transit tech-related projects, Skip Newberry, president and CEO of the Technology Association of Oregon, says down-the-road impacts could be monumental.
"One example, would be the ability to provide people with real-time data on their commutes," he says. For instance, someone who is concerned about carbon dioxide impact could look up their transit route on their phone and figure out the healtiest option at that particular moment. Meanwhile, someone who's looking to maximize physical exercise could look at the most active way to get from point A to point B.
"So arming people with that information potentially results in a lot of large-scale behavior change that has benefits to the entire population," Newberry says.
"It's thinking about cities like living organisms. The extent we're able to collect data in real time, planners will really be able to understand what the problems are and then what the solutions look like."
Portland is planning to install sensors in coming months to collect data about air quality.
Portland is keeping pace somewhat as cities all over the nation vie for federal funding, which many are dependent on to get a start on techcentric projects.
"There's only so many resources to go around. As more and more cities jump into this — as they will, problems are shared with cities all over the world — so it's a little bit of a race that's going on," Newberry says.
In 2016, the city applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge grant, and out of 78 applicants, was one of seven finalists that contended for $50 million to develop intelligent transportation systems.
Portland ultimately lost out to Columbus, Ohio, but nonetheless has been pushing forward with the initiative.
"We moped around for a few months, and realized we have this great proposal — let's see how we can continue to move this forward," Martin told the Tribune during a break while attending a Smart Cities conference in Austin, Texas.
Mayor Ted Wheeler then appointed Martin and that bureau with conducting a citywide assessment of what it means to put in a more formal governance around smart cities and coordination.
Most recently, Portland established an internal Smart City steering committee in June to further develop ideas and help conduct public engagement around some of these projects.
"Technology is affecting how and where we live, how we get around, and even what kind of work we do," Martin told the City Council in June.
Martin says that, compared to other cities, local government has been focusing on implementing policy to minimize disruption.
Disruptive technology is defined as technology that significantly disrupts and changes an existing market.
Portland learned that after Uber, a tech company that allows users to hail a driver through their phone, came to Portland. The company used software to evade regulation before being approved to operate in the city, resulting in contention between Portland and the company.
"It's become a bare necessity of life — food, shelter, clothing and data."
— Bob Youakim, CEO of Passport Inc., the developer behind the Portland Bureau of Transportation's Parking Kitty app
Martin says that although Portland lost out to Columbus for the U.S. Department of Transportation grant that "Portland is actually probably ahead of most, if not all cities in the United States in terms of trying to get some policies in place before these technologies appear."
But that means things could move slower. USA Today didn't mention Portland in a recent story about cities leading the way for driverless technology, for instance.
There has been little public engagement around some of these projects so far, too, something the city is trying to change.
Martin says the city plans to build a website that will centralize information about many of these Smart City projects, and start engaging the community about what its needs are. They're hoping to have the website live by September.
"I think a lot of these conversations are technical and wonky," Martin says, explaining why there's been minimal public engagement, and particularly about implementation of autonomous vehicles. "But I think we need to, because it's going to be such a disruptive technology."
Here's a look at some projects already available or on the horizon:
Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative
Portland announced its Smart Autonomous Vehicles Initiative in April so that it can prepare for the introduction of driverless cars to its market.
The city has put out a request for information from companies to submit ideas for autonomous vehicle pilot projects in the city while it has put in place some administrative rules until formal policy can be passed.
Martin says that policy for the "disruptive technology" will go before the City Council in early 2018. He says that they're "really trying to get the autonomous vehicle house in order," and that even though it's another decade before they will be ubiquitous, they are expected on the streets in the next two to three years.
The pros include reduction of crashes and cost of owning a private vehicle, while the cons include increasing traffic congestion and climate pollution.
Find out more: portlandoregon.gov/transportation/73493
TriMet, 'MOD Sandbox'
Last year, TriMet was awarded $678,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation to expand its Open Trip Planner platform and "build out its mobility." Currently it's a web-based app where people can plan a bus or train trip, and integrate walking or biking. TriMet is working on the project with Moovel, a tech company based in Portland, and other partners to integrate public transit with other ride-sharing options, including Lyft, Uber, Car2Go and Biketown for a more seamless journey, rather than only using one mode.
The grant is helping the agency update their data and maps, which are open to other developers to use for projects. It's a two-year undertaking, through 2019.
MOD stands for Mobility on Demand and is part of a larger Federal Transit Administration initiative aimed to help cities nation- wide combine the latest technology with their public transit services.
Whatever TriMet develops, it has to be replicable in other cities, according to Tim McHugh, chief technology of officer at TriMet.
"Everything we're doing isn't hard and fast for Portland. It has to be able to be done in other places," he says.
Find out more: trimet.org/mod
While Moovel takes pride in its TriMet ticketing app, which has around 250,000 active users and processes "several million in ticket sales" every month, according to CEO Nat Parker, it's also rolling out another large development with TriMet this month: Hop Fastpass. Hop Fastpass is an electronic fare card program, similar to what's already being used in many other large cities. It's a card preloaded with money online so users can just tap and ride any TriMet bus, C-TRAN or Portland Streetcar without spending time buying a paper ticket or using physical cash. Though electronic fare is used in other other cities, Hop Fastpass is only one of two programs in the U.S. that combines mobile account management with the contactless payment technology.
Moovel also is working on developing a way to simplify the process beyond the fare card, so riders can just scan using their smartphones. While e-fare cards are used in many cities, being able to use a smartphone for transit is unique, according to Parker.
He says Portland would be the first city on the west coast where you could tap your phone as a ticket.
He wasn't able to divulge when that development would be available for use. Chicago (Ventra) was the first city to use a cloud-based, mobile smart card account in this capacity, also developed by Moovel.
Find out more: myhopcard.com
Fare evasion application
Fare evaders beware, Moovel is in a testing mode with TriMet to release an inspector application that transit police could use to validate that people have paid to ride. They would be able to ask a rider for their Hop Fastpass, tap the card against the inspector's smartphone, and observe the balance as a way to eliminate pervasive fare evasion, according to Parker. TriMet confirms this will roll out on the heels of Hop Fastpass.
PBOT turned heads this spring when it rolled out its new parking app, Parking Kitty, which uses a cat on a pink logo as a mascot.
It was the first time the bureau had done a major technological improvement since it introduced digital pay stations in 2003, according to Malisa McCreedy, division manager of parking operations at PBOT.
"We hadn't done a lot of tech since then, this was really the first step," she says.
The app gives the 93 percent of users who pay for metered parking in Portland with a credit card another option than the process of going up to the meter to pay and then walking back to place the paper ticket in the car window.
PBOT's 61 parking enforcement of officers, who issued 222,487 parking tickets last year, have been adjusting to the new way of enforcement, in which they look up a car's license plate number that then tells them whether a person paid through Parking Kitty. If they don't show up in the system nor have a physical ticket in the window, then they will issue a parking ticket.
McCreedy and Passport Inc.'s Youakim both said the application could expand for people to purchase other things besides time in a parking space, such as permits.
When asked if they'll eventually transition to a coinless system, McCreedy said that there are still people who like to pay with physical money, but that "it might be a different conversation five years from now the way technology keeps improving.
"If that trend continues to 99 percent, will we still provide that coin option? I don't know, but since we're a public institution, we still like to provide that option for all users," she says.
Find out more: parkingkitty.com
According to Martin, the city is partnering with AT&T, General Electric and Intel on sensor deployment along Southeast Division Street, Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Southeast 122nd Avenue that will collect real-time information about how pedestrians are using city infrastructure.
"We have a pretty good idea of where cars and bikes are, but very little idea where pedestrians are and how they're using crossings," he says.
The second set of sensors connected to the internet will study air quality "at a more granular level." They will be located at the intersections of Southeast 28th Avenue and Powell Boulevard, and Southeast 122nd Avenue and Division Street.
The projects will deploy sometime between November and February, he says.
Folks involved with the Smart Cities initiative have mentioned the building of interactive kiosks throughout town that would provide free public Wi-Fi and connectivity. Screens would provide people access to city services.
It would be modeled after New York City's effort to replace more than 7,500 old pay phones with similar kiosks they call "Links." They provide free Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.
Martin says a pilot project would be small, starting with around 100 kiosks downtown and on TriMet platforms.
In May, Portland adopted an open data policy, in which it will make all data generated by city bureaus and any outside agencies affiliated with them open for sharing.
As there's been more data available in the world with the rise in smartphone use, there's been growing concern over loss of privacy and exposure of personal information, or even data being sold to third parties. But data through the city isn't specific to individuals and they aren't selling to third parties, according to Martin.
"Existing city policies regarding access to personally identifiable information will inform this work, and we will avoid releasing information that could be combined with other data sources to identify, say, public individuals," he says. Martin says it's possible that in the future, "companies might pay the city to prioritize creation and release data that is of use to them, data that we would then make publicly available."
Data, like where streetlights and traffic signals are located, could be useful to wireless carriers as they plan cellular networks, he says.
He adds that "many other cities" have policies and practices around open data that Portland can build on and are working with them through networks like Bloomberg Philanthropies' "What Works Cities" program that helps cities manage and use data.
As far as something like payment information, such as in Parking Kitty, McCreedy says that the city has to follow the Payment Card Industry Data security standard. Each year an outside auditor conducts an audit to make sure they're ensuring data security.
Newberry says while government gets more involved with data "and tech generally, what's helpful is to kind of set expectations beforehand. What are we comfortable with in giving up some data? What can they do with it, and toward what end? Those are all things cities are going to have to grapple with," Newberry says.
He says that it gets more complicated when governments enter more public-private partnerships.
"Whether you're talking about public records laws, privacy laws that apply regarding public sector versus private — all of those things are going to have to be reconciled," he says. "I think what's going to be an important part of this, is governments communicating and engaging with residents."