No more 'the train made me late' excuses, thanks to new website
It's the railroad crossing Southeast Portlanders dread: S.E. 11th and 12th Avenues, between Powell Boulevard and Division Street. Several times a day, trains block traffic along those routes for significant periods of time. But now, a website is offering drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians advance warning about when a train is present there.
The website – www.isatrainblocking11th.com – simply shows the answer to that question, yes or no, in large type. A ticker displays how long the crossing has been blocked. It's the brainchild of "DevelopmentNow", a 14-year-old Portland company that moved into the Ford Building at S.E. Division Street and 11th last summer—and quickly learned what they were up against.
"A lot of us would get blocked on the way to work, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for an hour," remarked DevelopmentNow CEO Ben Strackany, who commutes to work from Westmoreland. His team at the digital agency decided to brainstorm ways to solve their train troubles. "It really began as an internal project where we wanted to try out some cool technology, and see if we could solve a real-world problem."
Strackany says the "Is a Train Blocking 11th" website is based on technology called machine learning, and uses a camera aimed down from DevelopmentNow's office windows onto the street. His team programmed the system to detect when traffic backs up, and to assess when that slowdown is likely to be caused by a train. Strackany admits it's not 100% accurate, but they're working on the bugs, and may add extra cameras to "make it smarter."
The public reaction to the website has surprised Strackany. "I've rarely seen this kind of outpouring," he said, explaining that DevelopmentNow receives dozens of e-mails a day from people expressing appreciation for the website, with comments like, "I love you," and, "This is the best thing ever!"
The longest blockage Strackany has seen at the railroad crossing lasted more than two hours. "Obviously, it's a huge problem," he said, pointing to lost productivity, carbon emissions from idling vehicles, and the stress levels of drivers and others who simply want to get across the tracks. Amongst drivers, that frustration is common. "I probably get stuck there because of a train three to four times a week," agreed Jesse Cunningham, a delivery driver for nearby Minuteman Press at S.E. 20th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. "It's stupid. That's a main thoroughfare!" He also complained about the lack of good alternative routes around that area.
Brooklyn resident Ruth Ann Tsukuda isn't a fan of that crossing, either. When THE BEE asked her feelings about getting stuck there, she responded, "You can't print them!" She said her husband won't even take those roads anymore; but she remains hopeful, and still sometimes attempts those routes anyway – often, with ill effects. "God forbid you have to go the bathroom," she said with frustration.
Strackany said his team created the "Is a Train Blocking 11th" website so that it would work well on mobile devices, but the larger plan is to release a similar mobile app in the next few months. He said an app will offer several benefits, such as allowing users quicker access to the information.
Cunningham thinks an app would be of benefit to people like him, who drive for a living. "If you could have an app running in the background and then it popped up with an alert like: TRAIN! That would be cool," he said.
Tsukuda thinks that railroad crossing does have one positive aspect – it creates a bond amongst Southeast Portland residents, because frustration creates a near-universal rant. "It's probably one of the most repeated conversations we have in the neighborhood."
Strackany wants the community to know that he and his team are happy to be providing a useful service. "We appreciate that people are enjoying it, and getting some use out of it. We read every single e-mail you guys send. If you have something to say, or a suggestion, please let us know."
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