Google's Sidewalk Labs Is Creating a Platform to Make City Transit Better

Ruth Reader

Google is trying to transform public transportation. Sidewalk Labs, Google's urban planning subsidiary, is teaming up with the Department of Transportation to develop a data analytics platform that could change the way city transit works.

The project's goal is to create a platform that will connect under-serviced communities with the public transit they need, while generally improving traffic flow by incorporating new technologies like ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles.

The collaboration is a part of the DOT's Smart City Challenge initiative, which will allocate as much as $40 million to the city with the best plan for becoming "the country's first city to fully integrate innovative technologies – self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors – into their transportation network." The department recently announced its seven finalists for the competition, which include Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California. The winning city will be the first to receive Sidewalk Labs' platform, called Flow.

Google's Sidewalk Labs Is Creating a Platform to Make City Transit Better
Source: Getty Images

"We strongly believe empowering underserved communities is a key component of the smart city challenge," DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said at a press conference Thursday.

Google will deploy a series of Wi-Fi kiosks around the winning city as part of the Flow infrastructure. The distribution plan will look similar to another Sidewalk Labs project called LinkNYC, a massive free public Wi-Fi pilot that's taking over New York.

Flow will use data from Google Maps, Waze, strategically placed Wi-Fi hubs and other yet-to-be-identified sources to locate neighborhoods that need better access to public transportation, areas with lots of congestion and general traffic patterns. Data collected from users connected to the public Wi-Fi kiosks will be anonymized before it's aggregated, Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs' founder and CEO, said at a press conference.

The platform will theoretically help officials make decisions about how to involve new technology in urban planning. It could also lead to the development of consumer-facing apps that let people know the parking availability at a proposed destination before they leave their house, Doctoroff said.

For now, Sidewalk is working with the seven finalist cities to determine their needs and how a platform could potentially work with existing public infrastructure. Both the DOT and Google hope to bring the platform, once fully realized, to many cities around the U.S.