Adaptive traffic lights have been installed at Woodfords Corner and 21 other intersections in Portland. Some say they make street crossings harder for pedestrians. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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Portland’s proposed “smart city” innovations received a cool reception from residents who see the plans as too car centric.

The proposals also drew criticism from a city councilor, and from Mayor Kate Snyder’s former campaign manager.

The city manager and his staff have been pursuing technologies they say will make living, working and traveling in the city more efficient. At a public forum on autonomous vehicles in September 2018, City Manager Jon Jennings said the city was looking into autonomous shuttles that would run on two defined loops along Commercial Street and Franklin Street. They would allow people to park remotely and use the shuttles to get downtown. 

Portland is in the process of digitizing traffic rules, like the information on signs at Morrill’s Corner, in preparation for autonomous vehicles. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Lena Geraghty, the city’s director of innovation, gave an update about that and some of the other smart-city projects Portland is pursuing Jan. 21 at the Portland Public Library. She said they would put Portland on the map as a city that is experimenting with new solutions. 

In addition to autonomous shuttles, her team has been exploring technologies such as parking space sensors that can tell drivers where spots are available through a smartphone app, using money saved by converting street lights to LED bulbs.

Portland has also deployed adaptive traffic lights at 22 intersections along Forest Avenue, Washington Avenue and Franklin Street. At Morrill’s Corner, where the lights were first installed, travel time has dropped 12 percent and wait time has fallen 20 percent, Geraghty said. 

The city has also partnered with the Department of Environmental Protection to install two air quality monitors on the waterfront, is exploring regional solar investments, and purchased five electric-vehicle charging stations that will be installed at Back Cove, City Hall, the intersection of High and Spring streets, Payson Park, and the Portland International Jetport.

The city was chosen by software development company Inrix to pilot a new platform that stores information normally conveyed to drivers through signs and street painting in digital format that can be read by autonomous vehicles. It is in the process of developing a request for proposals for a vendor to operate two autonomous shuttles in the city. 

Some residents, however, are concerned that the innovations prioritize cars over other modes of transportation. They question whether the city’s most basic transportation shouldn’t be addressed first. The Public Works Department has reported that two-thirds of the city’s streets, roads and sidewalks are in fair, poor or very poor condition, and that it has a backlog of between $162 million and $200 million in needed repairs. 

One person who attended the library session suggested making driving easier in the city will have the unintended consequence of increasing traffic, with all the attendant environmental impacts.

“The best way to reduce vehicle emissions is to get people to not drive entirely,” said Eric Freeman, a graduate student in planning at Boston University. “Making driving more efficient misses the mark because time and again it has been demonstrated that  when driving is easier, all you get is more traffic.”

Freeman said that as a bicyclist he does not feel safer on Forest Avenue since the smart signals have been deployed. 

Others agreed traveling has become more difficult for walkers and bikers, including one who said wait times at Woodfords Corner are now “unacceptable” for pedestrians, and that the situation encourages jaywalking at the dangerous four-lane, five-way intersection. 

A bicyclist waits on a snowbank at a Woodfords Corner crosswalk. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Still others shared stories about having to climb over snow banks at crosswalks, and of elderly pedestrians unable to cross streets in the time allowed, and being stuck at islands waiting for the next walk signal. 

Geraghty said the new traffic lights at many of the intersections are still gathering traffic information and have not all begun adjusting signal times. The data gathered include information on the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists, which can potentially be used to redesign intersections to better accommodate the different uses. 

She said the city has asked the vendor of the adaptive streetlights to adjust the software so that when a crosswalk button is pushed the walk signal is prioritized. 

Clearing snow from sidewalks and crosswalks, Geraghty said, falls under general city operations. 

Tony Donovan, of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said he would like the city to explore commuter rail service between Portland and Lewiston before investing in autonomous vehicles, which he said will only add to street congestion and has the potential to take jobs away from taxi drivers, bus drivers and ride-service workers. 

He said former Mayor Ethan Strimling was a supporter of a proposal for a hybrid electric train from Portland’s Ocean Gateway to Lewiston, but his attempts to discuss the possibility with Strimling’s successor, Mayor Kate Snyder, have been unsuccessful because of her schedule. 

Freeman also expressed skepticism about autonomous vehicles, saying the technology is new and unproven.

“It seems a little bit like jumping the gun, when there is so much investment to be made in our existing transportation infrastructure, to throw so much money and resources at an idea that is still so early in its infancy and that does not have any reliable data to prove that it is actually a functional transportation alternative,” he said.

Lena Geraghty, Portland’s director of innovation, speaks at an information session Jan. 21 at Portland Public Library. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Freeman added that evidence from around the country shows autonomous shuttles are “spectacular failures in almost every regard.” 

But Geraghty said the office is communicating with several municipalities, such as Arlington, Texas, where autonomous shuttles projects have been successful. In Arlington, however, they operate on off-street trails, according to a report by the city on the pilot program. 

Councilor Kimberly Cook has questioned why city staff are pursuing autonomous vehicle technology without the City Council setting this as a goal or priority. In an interview, she said there are tradeoffs to using autonomous vehicles that she does not think are worthwhile. 

“Walkability, bikeability and pedestrian safety are really paramount for me,” Cook said. “Certainly one of my big concerns is that we (don’t) make things less pedestrian friendly in order to use autonomous vehicles.”  

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the council approved a $4 million allocation for smart city projects when it approved the LED streetlight conversion. About piloting the Inrix platform, “there would be no need for council approval … since there is no cost involved,” she said. 

Council minutes show the order to buy back streetlights from Central Maine Power Co. was approved unanimously Oct 16, 2017. The project budget presented at that meeting lists  “Selected Smart City and lighting projects” for $1 million in phase one and $1.7 million in phase two. Grondin clarified Jan. 28 that the $4 million for the second phase included decorative light upgrades in addition to smart-city projects.

As for staff resources, Grondin said the GIS technician on the engineering team in the Public Works Department is “probably spending five to 10 hours per month” on the Inrix project, inputting data, beta testing the platform and providing feedback to Inrix. 

Em Burnett, founder of Open Maine, a chapter of Code for America that brings together coders, designers and other community volunteers to develop tools to help with local civic issues, said the city’s pursuit of smart city innovations is too vendor-driven and does not tap resources available within Portland. They said the way the requests for proposals are written favor large vendors that have deployed these technologies in other cities. 

Burnett suggested Open Maine could develop an app to enlist volunteers to shovel out snow banks at crosswalks, as a Code for America team in Boston has done for shoveling out fire hydrants. 

“That’s the type of gritty innovation that’s possible, but the city is not pursuing,” Burnett said.  

Burnett, who managed Snyder’s mayoral campaign, also questioned the wisdom of investing in autonomous vehicles, which are dangerous to pedestrians. 

“We need to go back to the basics,” Burnett said. “Our sidewalks and roads are crumbling.” 

Snyder spoke favorably about the work of the city’s innovation office at the Monday announcement of Northeastern University’s Roux Institute, a graduate education and research campus it plans to open in Portland this spring.  

“We are a state and a city looking to further our reputation as an innovation hub, a place where data and technology are used to inform and impact even more livable, workable, sustainable, inclusive resilient lives and careers,” Snyder said. “As a city, we began investing in smart and connected city projects and hired the city’s first director of innovation. We’ve also partnered with companies to serve as beta testers for their projects. We want entrepreneurs to know that Portland is open to partnering with you.”

In an interview after the event she said it is her understanding there has been discussion  by the council and in council committees about piloting the use of autonomous vehicles.   

“From what I understand there would still be a pilot on board, but it would be that last mile of transit that happens between a parking lot and downtown,” she said. “So I think that’s pretty exciting.” 

The director of innovation is scheduled to make a presentation to the City Council Sustainability & Transportation Committee in February.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated Jan. 29 to correct which committee the director of innovation will be presenting to in February.