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Portland Launches Road Safety Sensor Pilot

The 18-month program will use 200 streetlight sensors to study car, foot and bike traffic on three busy city streets.

Portland, Ore., will be closely monitoring car, foot and bike traffic on several busy roads to gain insight into how the throughways can be managed for safety and efficiency.
Approximately 200 Internet of Things (IoT) sensors will be attached to streetlights on Hawthorne, Division and 122nd streets as part of the Traffic Safety Sensor Project, an 18-month pilot launched June 18, 2018, to give the city a close look at activity on three of the city’s busiest streets.
“As part of the city’s Vision Zero mission to reduce pedestrian, cyclist and motor accidents and fatalities, the city of Portland is piloting the use of sensors that use real-time video analysis to collect vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian data,” said Sophia June, a spokeswoman with the Portland Mayor’s Office, in an email.
The sensors “help us get accurate data about pedestrian movements, about vehicle movements, parking data and also environmental data extraction,” said Austin Ashe, general manager of Intelligent Cities at Current by GE, the private-sector partner in the project.
“By extracting all of these data sets from each of these sensors around the city, we can literally put our finger on the pulse of this city,” explained Ashe. “And with that data we can start uncovering really valuable insights that lead to optimized traffic flow, better understanding of parking occupancy, decreased number of traffic accidents, better understanding of micro-climates in Portland. So it’s those kind of things.”
All of the data collected will be anonymous. “It’s just the meta-data,” said Ashe. “So we’re not getting any personal identifying information like license plates, or the color of people or gender, none of that.”
The pilot is part of Portland’s Smart City PDX initiative, which also includes other projects like air-quality monitoring, infrastructure monitoring and the Smart Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, which will develop best practices for testing self-driving cars on Portland’s streets. The Traffic Safety Sensor Project is part of the Portland Urban Data Lake (PUDL) pilot, which will gather, store, integrate and analyze data from numerous sources, according to June.
The traffic sensor pilot, which places sensors in streetlights, is similar to an approach in San Diego, where some 3,200 streetlights are being outfitted with a sensor network that will cover about half of the city. Even small cities, like Farmers Branch, Texas, near Dallas, are looking to the technology, and have deployed the same system, known as Current by GE’s CityIQ.
“One of the beautiful things about the CityIQ platform is that it’s flexible enough, that any city can adopt it,” said Ashe. 
“It’s just like a smartphone on a pole,” he added. “When you think about what a smartphone really is — even though we call it a phone — it’s actually a computer with about 14 different sensors in it. That’s exactly what these nodes are. They’re an Intel computer inside with about 35 different sensors in it.”
The CityIQ platform can be customized to meet each city’s needs, similar to the way users can customize their smartphones with apps that fit their needs. “It’s a little cliché to say, but ‘you can’t map what you can’t measure,’” said Ashe. “But there’s so much truth to that.”
The sensors do not need to be installed in each streetlamp, but only every several hundred feet. Portland’s pilot project cost just over $1 million and was funded through transportation funds, private-sector partners and other sources.
“Portland is leading the country in this important data effort,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, in a statement. “We are at the forefront of using advanced technology to make our cities safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers, helping people more easily get around, save time and reduce the possibility of crashes. This pilot is a significant step in acquiring and utilizing data to make critical decisions.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.