Hot off the stinging defeat in the Smart Cities Challenge (Columbus, Ohio won) Portland is keen to keep up the momentum of the “gang of seven” finalists (the others are Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco).
In that spirit, Portland hosted a summit at the Oregon Convention Center on Feb. 1 and 2 focusing on the city’s strongest suit: Transportation.
The Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) Super Action Cluster Summit was designed to bring local authorities, tech vendors and consultants together to figure out a blueprint making cities smarter — sooner.
The goal is intelligent transportation systems, public safety and innovations in mobility and social business in local government. However, there are so many variables — different sensors and software packages, competing municipalities, siloed bureaus, plus the great unknown of the future — that the people with a vested interest in smart cities are still trying to figure out best practices now and ease the progress towards a more efficient and comfortable future.
Yes, someone used an image from Wall-E in their presentation. But the future will not be chubby tourists on hover-loungers being served drinks by robots.
Ruthbea Clarke, research director, Smart Cities at Boston-area IDC Research, said public-private partnerships are common, but they have to be simple. For example, she said, Phillips rents lights from municipalities and installs their LED bulbs that cities could not afford, while Ericsson uses the same infrastructure to provide Wi-Fi Internet access.
Money in ads
“But you need to engage the community effectively” she stressed, saying you can’t just layer new technology without explaining it. In one place they held a Sundance-type film festival and garnered a lot of local support. “They got the funding because they were innovative.”
Revenue sharing — chiefly ad revenue sharing — is another model that works. She pointed to New York City’s LinkNYC. They provide skinny kiosks on the street offering free Wi-Fi access, free Vonage phone calls, charging ports and a large screen for ads. The city hopes they will replace the 7,500 payphones New York once had.
Other cities should follow suit. “There are already loads of ads on trains and buses, we just need to establish the contracts that share the revenues.”
She also mentioned Kansas City’s Smart City corridor along the route of its free streetcar. It’s a $15 million public-private partnership providing interactive kiosks, free public Wi-Fi, smart streetlights and sensors.
“What makes it real is when a Chief Innovation Officer — Bob Bennett of Kansas City — calls you and says ‘We just got our first check for $138,000 from revenue sharing.”
Clarke praised Transport for London for casting itself as a platform for innovation, opening up its data to private companies to provide ads. “The idea is others can create the companies, the city doesn’t need to do it.”
They open up the real time data (updated every five seconds) for 61 parking garages. But only those near tube lines. It’s a way of encouraging people to park and ride. This is an example as “policy as a transportation nudge.”
Other examples are the new campus of General Electric, near Boston, which is only providing 28 parking spaces for 800 workers so they will have to shift to mass transit, or the car free zones in Paris and Oslo.
“This all starts with a vision, but cities can’t do it without strong leadership.”
She also cautioned city managers against people selling technology. They will often come in, say they get your mission, and then down the line the tech overwhelms the city staff who have to implement it. They should focus on results — not promises.
Clarke quizzes her taxi and ride share drivers and has found none of them know about smart cities. One had heard of IBM’s Smarter Planet, but didn’t really know what it was. “Our mantra is make public-facing websites understandable.”
She says cities need to get the message out in terms of benefits to the citizens: shorter wait times for transit and emergency services, more convenience and lots of free mobile internet.
Also, “Build your team — no city can do it without partners. And don’t promise to give away your data for free stuff.”
Electric vehicle maker Arcimoto is a great example of the changing tide of last mile thinking. The Eugene-based company is on the eighth iteration of its three-wheeled vehicle, which is being classed as a motorcycle and therefore less susceptible to a lot of regulations to make or drive.
Business Development Lead Jesse Fittipaldi took the Business Tribune for a spin around the convention center in the golf-cart-like vehicle. It does up to 80 mph, so it can hold its own in freeway traffic and not be limited to short rides like a moped. (It was, however, a bit cold for joyriding.) However, Arcimoto has pivoted and now sees itself as selling a rideshare vehicle. “People can own one and rent it out using the app when they’re not using it. Or they can own two or three and generate income,” says Fittipaldi. For example, they get paid more for renting them out to curious test drivers, which is a good way of getting your customers to do your marketing for you.
One of the hosts was Wilf Pinfold, CEO at Portland-based urban.systems and a huge proponent of last mile solutions such as roving autonomous electric cars. He introduced Bibiana McHugh, TriMet’s IT Manager of GIS and Location-Based Service.
“Smart cities must integrate transit with shared use and do it in an open and collaborative way, with public-private partnerships. I believe 99.9 percent of problems can be solved with open data.”
She praised the GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification), a standard for relaying trip data in real time, so that someone at a bus stop knows to the minute when the ride is coming.
The goal is to tie all forms of transit together, so that a bike share or ride share can easily complete the last mile of a trip by bus or MAX.
She said there are over a thousand different transit apps on Google Play but only TriMet’s has an intermodal trip planner, giving a complete itinerary.
TriMet won a SandBox U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant of $678,000 in October 2016 with the goal of expanding its Open Trip Planning app. It will add shared-use mobility options into the existing trip planning tool and make it replicable for other cities. “But this is only possible with open data standards,” she reiterated.
Smarter county: Montgomery, Maryland
Chief Innovation Officer is a job now, and not just inside tech companies. In government too. Dan Hoffman was a good example of one in the wild. As CIO for Montgomery County in Maryland, he oversees an urban area outside Washington, D.C. of 1.1 million people. It’s bigger than D.C. but has similar transportation challenges.
It has the metro system, and 350 buses. Trying to be far-sighted, his team thinks of buses and bus shelters as platforms: they can offer Wi-Fi, charging stations, video surveillance and have a captive audience.
With temperature and light sensors on buses and bus stops, they can contribute data back to the system. “Think of a bus as a roving sensor,” said Hoffman, “And a bus stop as a stationary piece of infrastructure.”
Although a county official, he works with local mayors, but found when he asked bureaus for their data they told him ‘You don’t need that!’
“The EPA wants air quality data. Smart city solutions cut across departments.”
Ultimately, a transit agency will be able to drag and drop a route when needed, and people will hail buses between stops with their phones. However, it’s hard changing the fixed mindset of so many transit users and government workers.
Montgomery County has 12 test buses running now. Training drivers is one thing. They worry about how many phones will be left behind in charging stations, and being distracted from driving by people asking for Wi-Fi help.
“Our buses are a compilation of seven different systems — fare systems, people counters, communications, etcetera. If we are lucky, they will all talk to each other and we will own the data,” Hoffman said.
Paulo Calcada, the CEO Porto Digital from Porto, a city of 250,000 in Portugal, showed how far ahead of the U.S. Europe a medium sized cities already are.
In fact he said, most of the population of Europe does not live in the big cities, and smart cities there are scaling appropriately.
The city prides itself on being forward thinking, going back to its two steel bridges engineered by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) and its modern metro system.
“Data is the fuel of smarter cities,” said Calcada. But he found that in Europe too, data is siloed: bureaus do not want to share. “We found we have over 800 data sources in Porto.”
The smarter citizen just wants people to help them solve problems in their daily life. They’re not interested in hearing about sensors. So Porto’s fleet of 300 municipal vehicles are all smart, interconnected vehicles, and the 400 buses are connected too. Porto has an integrated management center. It’s a command room full of screens for dashboards and video, where they hold weekly meetings to address problems.
Perception is everything. “We know when you move a bus stop, how it affects business at the store right there, but you don’t always see how it improves the network overall.”
They have Urban Sense data collection units which include pedestrian counters, anemometers (wind speed), sonometers, pluviometers (rain), as well as sensors for oxygen, NO2, CO2, and particulates.
He pulled up a pulsing red and blue map of the city which showed a time lapse of traffic movement over the day. He hopes Porto will have 1,000 beacons or sets of sensors eventually, with up to half of them in the city center.
Porto hosted a 24 hour hackathon to get people to validate the quality of the data. “(Software) developers were really keen. 24 hours without sleeping…” he said smiling at the idea that local government could be suddenly cool.
In the small town of Centennial, Colorado (pop. 106,000, 15 miles from Denver) Melanie Morgan, an Innovation Team Data Analyst, and her team had the goal to encourage light rail use and reduce the first and last mile subsidy. They proposed a using Lyft to get people the last mile from the light rail that runs alongside I-25. The city was subsidizing riders to the tune or $15 per ride, but the average Lyft ride was just $5.
They said there was “high political interest” in seeing the pilot continue beyond its six months.
It was a working conference, one where people asked loudly for help and advice. She appealed to the audience for help.
“We’re looking for ideas, for how to scale, for our operations mode, marketing and private partners,” said Morgan.
Vision Zero needs a nudge
Margi Bradway, Active Transportation Division Manager at PBOT, showed a Google map of Portland with all the freeways in heavy traffic red.
“You all know this don’t you?” She asked. “Every city has this.” But she pointed out, such maps don’t show all the pedestrians and transit riders, who are doing their bit to lessen that red.
As a Safe Routes to Schools advocate, Bradway said they survey parents to ascertain how many kids walk to school (43 percent) but she wants technology to do it more accurately. And she would like to know why so many pedestrians choose to cross not at a cross walk, often with deadly consequences.
It was clear that much of the work on smarter cities is being done by those who can straddle the line between technology and bureaucracy. Translating the benefits into plain English for the person in the street is the sticking point.