'Smart' streetlights sign of things to come around town
By June, sensors on streetlights will track how people walk, bike and drive along some of Portland's most dangerous streets — Southeast 122nd Avenue, Hawthorne Boulevard and Division Street.
No, this is not Big Brother trying to remotely ticket jaywalkers, speeders and other traffic scofflaws. It is part of a public-private partnership to help determine how people actually use city streets and sidewalks in an effort to make them safer.
The Portland Bureau of Transportation has scheduled an Open House and Tech Expo on its Smart Safety Sensor Initiative on Wednesday, April 25. Also participating will be representatives of the private companies partcipating in the project, including AT&T, GE, Intel and PGE. They will explain how 200 new streetlight-mounted sensors can help the city design safer streets and sidewalks.
"When it comes to designing our streets, having accurate information about how people actually use them is critical," said PBOT spokesman John Brady.
According to Brady, the project will install 30-pound sensors on replacement "mast arms" holding up 200 streetlights on PGE poles. The sensors will take street-scene pictures that will be converted to data, preventing people or vehicles from being identified.
"Privacy is a top concern," Brady said.
The installations are scheduled to begin in mid-May and be completed within 30 days. The total cost is around $1 million, with PBOT paying about $850,000 and the private-sector partners contributing the rest.
The project is part of the Smart City Initiative that is studying how to use such advanced technologies to help people get around town better, saving time and reducing the possibility of fatal and serious injury crashes. Among other things, it includes planning the infrastructure for the autonomous vehicles expected to provide on-demand transportation without drivers.
At first glance, it might seem unrealistic for a city that cannot even maintain its streets to be planning for such advanced technologies. But experts say they already are here and will only become more critical to the operation of modern cities in the future.
"The first question is, what kind of city do we want to live in? The next question is, what technologies can we deploy to get there," said Nico Larco, associate professor and co-founder of the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon.
Larco was one of the panelists who discussed how Portland and other cities are changing at the Portland Business Alliance's Forum Breakfast on Wednesday, April 17, at the downtown Sentinel Hotel. The other panelists were Justin Christiansen, Intel's general manager of Internet of Things Market and Channel Sales, and Andrew Macklin, PGE's director of Smart Cities Initiatives. Together, they explained how the growing number of connected devices and other advances will generate the data needed to better plan more sustainable cities in the future.
"It's predicted that cities will eventually generate 15 times the data that is on the internet now," Christiansen said.
But before that happens, cities and the companies developing and deploying such technologies need to better understand and define their roles, a process that is happening now.
"Collaboration is critical, and a lot of players are trying to figure out where they fit in," Macklin said.
Larco was quick to warn that despite the promised benefits of such technologies, without proper planning, they actually could make things worse. For example, he predicts that autonomous vehicles will reduce the need for parking in residential areas and employment centers, allowing for denser development. But Larco also said at least one study suggests traffic congestion could greatly increase because up to 43 percent of transit riders will switch to autonomous vehicles.
"If we don't plan, it could be ugly," Larco said.
Macklin said the greatest range of such advanced technologies is likely to be deployed first in parts of town where large-scale redevelopments currently are being planned. They include the Broadway Corridor at the west end of the Broadway Bridge where the former U.S. Post Office distribution center is located, the underdeveloped land the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry owns around its visitor center, and the so-called Innovation Quadrant seeking to better unite the high-tech centers at Portland State University and in South Waterfront, where Oregon Health & Science University and Oregon State University are building facilities,
"They will be showing up where there are aspirational plans," Macklin said.
Portland's Smart City Initiative grew out of a 2015 grant request submitted to the U.S Department of Transportation's Smart Cities Challenge. Although Portland did not win a grant, the process encouraged city leaders to learn more about how technologies already are changing cities and what the future may bring.
If you go
What: Smart City PDX Open House and Tech Expo
Where: Community Hall, Portland Community College - Southeast Campus, 2305 S.E. 82nd Ave., Portland, OR 97216
When: 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25
Who: Representatives from the Smart City Project Team, AT&T, Current by GE, Intel and PGE