“Cities must find ways to foster the emergence of technologies that have the potential to transform transportation and people’s lives,” says US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Google launched Sidewalk Labs last summer and tapped Dan Doctoroff, who served as New York’s deputy mayor for economic development under Michael Bloomberg, to lead it. Its goal is to attack major urban problems—congestion, housing, energy, and so on—using big data and emerging technology. It’s been publicly involved in just one project, LinkNYC, which replaces pay phones with kiosks that provide free Wi-Fi and touchscreens for free local calls and Internet browsing.
In Act II, Sidewalk Labs will work with the DOT and the seven finalists to create “Flow,” a “transportation coordination platform” for gathering data and making it helpful for city planners and residents. It will pull in traffic information from Google Maps and maybe Waze1, along with data from public services like mass transit and bike sharing networks.
Sidewalk Labs will also outfit the Smart City Challenge winner (to be announced in June) with more than 100 Wi-Fi kiosks, which also can gather data on things like pedestrian activity, noise levels, and air quality.
The goal with Flow is to spin all that data into useful tools for things like guiding traffic, adjusting public transit service on the fly, and tracking parking. The program has the potential to be “wildly useful,” says Sarah Kaufman, assistant director for technology programming at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. Given its deep penetration of the smartphone market, Google could provide granular, live data that provides a far more accurate picture than traditional tools like annual traffic surveys. “You can get a better handle on how people are actually getting around,” Kaufman says.
The benefits could be especially important for low-income workers, who are more likely to travel outside typical commute times. “Rush hour service is designed for white collar nine-to-five workers,” Kaufman says. Better and more accessible could help improve service for all.
Even with Google’s help, the Smart City Challenge can’t address all of America’s transportation woes. It won’t fix what Foxx calls “chronic underinvestment” in infrastructure like roads and bridges (which is largely a result of Congress’s refusal to raise the gas tax in 23 years or to pass a meaningful highway funding measure). In its most recent infrastructure “report card,” the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US highways a D+, a mess that it estimatescosts the nation $101 billion annually in lost time and fuel. But it raises “the possibility that technology and innovation can begin to help us solve some of our mobility challenges differently,” Foxx says. “That could be a way to flatten the curve of the infrastructure deficit a little bit.”
Sidewalk Labs, the competing cities, and the DOT will spend the next few months building the infrastructure to integrate data from various sources, Doctoroff says. Once established, Flow should evolve as a tool, incorporating more information and offering new ways to make it useful. And eventually, Doctoroff says, Sidewalk Labs and the DOT will share it with more cities—not just the winners.