NFC RFID Tracks Tram Ridership of Oregon University

By Claire Swedberg

Oregon Health & Science University is deploying NFC badge-reading kiosks at the two stations for its aerial trams, in order to understand ridership statistics in advance of a scheduled maintenance shut-down.

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Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) will begin using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology this month to identify the movements of passengers on the Portland Aerial Tram that connects the South Waterfront district campus to the school’s Marquam Hill main campus. The system will enable the medical school to better manage a temporary, maintenance-based closure of its trams next year, by understanding the traffic flow. The system consists of Serialio‘s Cloud-in-Hand Mobile Workforce Solution, with a moveable NFC reader kiosk at each of its two access points.

The tram system helps to solve a commuting challenge for the approximately 20,000 visitors to the hilltop college campus, which is accessible from the South Waterfront campus via only two two-lane roads. Those roads, as well as parking lots, cannot accommodate that large number of drivers.

OHSU’s Christine Basnett

For the past decade, the trams have served as an alternative to driving, with just two trams (called Jean and Walt) moving 10,000 people each day. Each is named for a prominent graduate of OHSU or Ohio State University (OSU). Jean (the north cabin) and Walt (the south cabin) each can carry as many as 78 people on the three-minute ride up or down the hill. OHSU oversees the trams’ operation and is responsible for servicing the tram ropes once every 12 years, says Christine Basnett, OHSU’s transportation and parking operations supervisor. In June, 2018, the university plans to shut down the tram system for five weeks, and to reposition the ropes that carry the trams between the two campuses.

In addition to the trams, the college has been using a bicycle valet service for the past five years to reduce vehicular traffic. Students and employees can present their RFID-enabled ID badge to workers at a fenced-in storage area at the South Waterfront. The employees read each visitor’s badge ID number using an NFC reader and assign a location for that person’s bike, and that data is stored in Serialio’s software. When the rider returns for his or her bicycle, another badge scan prompts the display of the bike’s location in the storage area so that it can be quickly retrieved.

Approximately 300 students and faculty members use this bike valet service daily. They have financial incentive to do so as well, since OHSU pays riders $20 every 20 days if they use the service, in the form of a check.

Beginning in the next few weeks, OHSU will also use its Serialio Champ RS3Dual Bluetooth and NFC RFID readers at the waterfront and Marquam Hill locations. Student and faculty ID cards (the same ones in use for the bike valet system) come with a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz NFC HID Global iClass Badge chip, says Christie Carbone, Serialio’s marketing director. In addition to bike services and tram access, the card is used for access control.

When a rider taps his or her card against the front of the NFC reader kiosk, the device captures the card’s ID and forwards that data, along with a date and time stamp, to Serialio’s server via a Wi-Fi connection, to be managed by the Cloud-in-Hand software. The badge reads from all eight kiosks are then collated into a single daily report at the end of the day, says Matt Dragomanovich, Serialio’s solutions manager.

The software sends that report to OHSU, indicating which ID numbers were captured, as well as where and when. The university then pairs that information with the specific department linked to each ID, such as ophthalmology or cardiology. In that way, the school can track which departments have the most ridership, when this occurs and for what proposes—for instance, moving patients, or carrying specimens or organs.

Serialio’s Matt Dragomanovich

With that data, OHSU intends to better establish the back-up infrastructure required to move traffic during the 2018 five-week shutdown. For example, shuttles may be provided at specific times and in particular quantities, based on ridership statistics. The information will also enable the college to share information with the departments that rely most heavily on the trams. “This will help us communicate with the departments,” Basnett says.

The university can accomplish other analytics as well. For instance, the data helps the school understand how many people use the trams during lunch or at other times, when they may be riding to the waterfront to access food carts. Based on the ridership numbers, OHSU can then make decisions, such as moving or providing lunch carts at other locations. “As of now,” Basnett states, “we are trying to determine the things we don’t know about,” related to ridership statistics. The school also expects bike ridership to increase during that time, and could expand the storage areas based on data collected from the valet RFID system.

After the temporary closure has ended, Basnett reports, OHSU intends to continue using the NFC kiosks at the trams. The long-term plan is to install automated turnstiles. Until the NFC kiosk deployment takes place, students and faculty must show their ID badge to OHSU tram employees, who confirm the authenticity and count the badges. In the meantime, members of the public must purchase a ticket and show it to the same employees. With the kiosks in place, an automated system for purchasing the rides will be available to members of the public. The system will print NFC-enabled tickets, and riders will tap their ID badge or paper ticket against the kiosk reader in order to proceed through the turnstile.

The NFC-enabled kiosks were installed for several weeks earlier this spring, Basnett says, but were taken down for technology upgrades. The initial kiosks did not react to card reads (either with visual or audible signals), so passengers were unclear whether or not their cards were being read. The revised kiosks will include a flashing LED light.