Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs Wants to Help You Navigate Smart Cities

A mobile app will give you all the best options for driving, parking, and transit

Photo: iStockphoto

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the winner of its Smart City Challenge was Columbus, Ohio. Columbus beat out six other finalist cities (including widely-recognized best city ever Portland, Ore., from where the author originates) for $40 million “to reshape its transportation system to become part of a fully-integrated city that harnesses the power and potential of data, technology, and creativity to reimagine how people and goods move throughout their city.”

Flush with all this cash (plus an estimated $100 million from private sources), Columbus now has to decide exactly who it’s going to hire to help it do all of this reshaping and fully-integrating. One option is Sidewalk Labs, a child of Alphabet, Google’s umbrella corporation. The Guardian did a bit of digging, and found out some details about the transportation future that Sidewalk Labs wants to make happen.

Sidewalk Labs and the Department of Transportation are working together with all of the Smart City finalists on a platform called Flow, which Sidewalk describes as “a transportation coordination platform that uses analytics and messaging to help cities work with citizens to increase the efficiency of road, parking, and transit use, improving access to mobility for all.”

There are two primary components to Flow: first, you’ve got analytics and simulations, which use real-time data from smartphones and environmental sensors to provide a real-time understanding of how roads and parking spaces are being used and why some routes might be more congested than others. And second, based on those analytics, Flow’s mobile app will help users find the fastest and most efficient way to get where they’re going:

  • Dynamic parking routes drivers directly to available parking, provides them with pricing, and shows availability at the beginning of their journey to avoid circling and encourage alternative modes of transit.
  • Dynamic transit adjusts transit routes based on real-time ridership demand and provides on-street interfaces to new shared mobility services to citizens without a smartphone.

Let’s take a look at Dynamic Parking. Rather than outfit every parking space in a city with sensors (which would be prohibitively expensive), Sidewalk instead wants to use camera-equipped Googles Street View-type vehicles to count up all of the available parking places in a city, while at the same time reading all of the parking signs, to create a massive database of where parking is available and when. Based on parking meters that have been activated and what destinations drivers are searching for on Google Maps, Sidewalk can make specific suggestions about where to find parking.

It’s not just public parking that Sidewalk wants to manage through Flow. They also want to be able to offer up spots in private garages, as well as in the parking lots of offices and retailers, who would of course be compensated. For example, if you have an office building downtown with a lot that’s full of employees from 9 am to 5 pm, renting out those otherwise unused spaces could be very lucrative—Sidewalk estimates that each space could be worth $2,000 a year.

With this level of granular understanding and control over parking, the cost of spaces could also be dynamically adjusted based on demand. This would, of course, increase income for parking space owners (by up to 10 percent per year, Sidewalk suggests), but you could also look at it as a way of promoting alternative transportation during particularly busy times.

This is where Dynamic Transit comes in. Google Maps already does this a little bit, by providing estimates for time and cost based on driving, public transit, and occasionally Uber. Sidewalk is envisioning a much more comprehensive transit app that would add options for car shares, taxis, bike shares, and optimised combinations of all of these. So, you could imagine a situation in which you want to go downtown for dinner, and you’re planning on driving, because public transit takes too long and Uber is expensive. But Flow knows that it’s busy downtown now, and that finding parking will be time consuming and expensive, and lets you know that Uber is actually a more efficient option. 

The overall idea with Flow is that it’ll be able to provide each user with the most efficient and cost effective transit options possible, and that the experience of using those options should be easy and seamless. For this to work, Flow needs to be able to handle all of the transit-related payments as well. Whether you take the bus, the train, a car share, an Uber, or rent a bike, it’ll all be done through Flow’s mobile payment system. It makes sense that it has to be done this way, but it’s also going to place a massive burden on whatever city (Columbus, in this case) wants to implement Flow. 

Obviously, there is a lot of potential with a system like Flow, but the amount of infrastructure change necessary to effectively implement it is, to put it mildly, significant, not to mention the risks associated with relying on a single platform to run an entire city. In fact, like any company with a compelling product, Sidewalk sounds anxious to expand Flow to as many cities as possible. Hopefully, Columbus will show that a system like Flow can offer real benefits for its citizens—and live up to its newly acquired status as Smartest of the Smart Cities.

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