Flickr/Joiseyshowaa

Flow’s robust data infrastructure and sidewalk kiosks will also help put autonomous cars on the road.  

Real-time transit information is among the most valuable assets commuters have. But as anyone with a transit app on their smartphone knows, it’s also incredibly elusive. The availability and reliability of trains, buses, bikes, and Ubers depends on a thousand grief-giving gears. For residents of neighborhoods that are already underserved by transit, and who might not have a smartphone at all, figuring out the best route from A to B is all the more challenging.

Sidewalk Labs, the Google arm developing technological solutions to urban problems, announced with the U.S. Department of Transportation Thursday that it is building “Flow,” a digital platform that seeks to address the real-time transit problem and more. Flow will aggregate and analyze mobility data from a great number of sources—including Google Maps, Waze, municipal data, and eventually, remote traffic sensors—to identify what’s causing congestion and which areas need what kind of service.

This won’t just be software for transit officials to lord over, though. Flow will also have a public, outward-facing element in the form of digital kiosks that provide real-time transit information and wifi, similar to those currently in beta testing by Link NYC. That way, “citizens without a smartphone or data plan use new dynamic mobility services,” according to a Sidewalk Labs press release. The kiosks will also include remote sensors that anonymously gauge parking availability, traffic flow, and rider demand. Eventually, those sensors could be used to test and regulate autonomous cars.  

One hundred kiosks will be deployed across 25 blocks of an underserved neighborhood in whichever city wins the Smart City Challenge, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $40 million tech-integration initiative. The finalists—San Francisco, Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Portland—are now fine-tuning their proposals for how they’d use those funds to blend stuff like autonomous cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors into their existing transportation networks, and they’ll help Sidewalk Labs refine the Flow technology. The DOT, which is also working with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. on the initiative, will announce the winner in June.

In their present form, virtually all of the cities’ proposals seem to fit well with Flow’s model. Austin, Denver, Pittsburgh, and Portland all call out sensor-based technology in their plans. As part of their proposals, Kansas City and San Francisco want infrastructure to regulate autonomous vehicles, and Columbus calls out the need for real-time transit information.

All of these cities could greatly use the transit equity improvements that Flow offers. And from a technological, political, and legal perspective, they present different pluses and minuses as testing grounds for a technology that’s also designed to support the introduction of autonomous vehicles. In that sense, Google stands to benefit just as much from the winning city as that city does from Google. And given the barren funding environment most U.S. cities are operating in, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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