Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Contrary to a recent article, “smart” transportation technologies like those from Sidewalk Labs aren’t really a big secret. Plus, cities want them.
Google drives about a third of all internet traffic and has the best digital map of the world. Every day, its databases process billions of thoughts and queries, secret and banal, typed into search engines and email subject lines. Among other things, Alphabet Inc., Google’s holding company, builds robots of formidable intelligence. Its technologies will soon be chauffeuring us from points A to B.
Reading about Alphabet’s hush-hush projects, interconnected products, and disruptions both welcome and unwelcome, wary minds may well wonder if its ambitions might include world domination. An article published Monday in the Guardian, about an Alphabet subsidiary’s work with the finalists of the U.S. DOT’s $50 million Smart Cities Challenge, seemed to lean toward that suspicion, starting with a fairly alarmist headline and opening sentence:
Sidewalk Labs, a secretive subsidiary of Alphabet, wants to radically overhaul public parking and transportation in American cities, emails and documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.
It goes on to describe some of the services which would usher in this “radical overhaul,” as gleaned from the obtained documents: a platform that allows low-income bus riders to apply public subsidies to ride-sharing services; an app that unifies payment and service information for all modes of transit; public wi-fi kiosks with remote sensing capabilities; and “virtualized parking,” which would use camera-equipped vehicles to scan for empty spaces cities could sell on a virtual parking market.
As the article explains, all of the functions described here are proposed elements of Flow, the transportation-data collection and analysis platform. Flow is one of Sidewalk Labs’ two current, public products (the other is the aforementioned line of kiosks, some of which are in use now in New York City). Flow is currently being offered first to Columbus, Ohio, which won the U.S. DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge last week. The Guardian article goes on to examine a sample contract that describes the terms and conditions required of Columbus by Sidewalk Labs:
Cities like Columbus would be obliged to bring parking signs up to date, re-train enforcement officers and share parking and ridership information with Sidewalk in real time. The company also wants cities to share public transport data with ride-sharing companies, allowing Uber to direct cars to overcrowded bus stops.
All these conditions could mean expensive upgrades to existing technology. “Not every city would be ready to do that,” says [Alexei Pozdnoukhov, director of the Smart Cities Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley]. “Plus, you’ve got a variety of transit operators. Small ones might have to change their entire payment systems.”
Overall, the article gives the impression that Flow is some kind of top-down planning regime, conceived in secret by Sidewalk Labs and foisted on cities like Columbus. It makes it sound conspiratorial. But that isn’t really the case.
First, the Guardian article does not mention that Flow was announced in March, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, as technology offered for free by Sidewalk Labs to the Smart Cities Challenge victor. The exclusive documents obtained by the Guardian were, according to Sidewalk Labs, pitch materials shared with finalist cities that modeled some of the possible functions of Flow. Since the platform has still yet to be deployed in any city, the specific elements of Flow remain a work in progress.
This is not to say that the Guardian’s facts and images came out of nowhere. Flow will, in fact, aim to “increase the efficiency of roads, parking, and transit use,” says Anand Babu, COO of Sidewalk Labs. It will provide real-time transportation information to cities, and it “could be used to improve and plan public transportation, guide drivers directly to parking, or point commuters to shared mobility options they can use when public transportation is not an option.”
But the final product will ultimately be a result of a back-and-forth process with whatever city adopts it first—not a grand transit “fix,” ordained in the shadows. Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff writes in Co.Design that the company worked with the Smart Cities finalists to refine the functions of Flow. According to a number of officials from those cities, that is true. Sidewalk Labs reps flew to meet with each of the seven finalist cities to discuss how their services might work there. According to attendees, those meetings resembled meetings with any other vendor angling to sell young technology to a government: There was give and take.
“They offered a partnership to come to our city and work with us to build out Flow as a responsive, holistic transportation-management system,” says Bob Bennett, the chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Missouri. It wasn’t immediately obvious to Bennett that Sidewalk Labs’ offerings were better than those of other companies, though. If Kansas City had won, Bennett says he might have preferred to use a local developer to build a transit-data platform akin to Flow. He also says that Sidewalk Labs pushed its kiosks “adamantly,” and that “their feelings may have been hurt” when he said no, because Kansas City already has kiosks. But if Sidewalk Labs came back with a better pitch, he’d still consider it. “I want the best solutions the city can have, and I don't care who produces it,” Bennett says.
Margi Bradway, the active transportation safety division manager of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, says that her city had “great conversations” with Sidewalk Labs. “We were interested in working with multimodal app developers to route drivers around school safety zones, and Sidewalk Labs indicated that they had that capability,” says Bradway. “There was a lot of synergy and discussion around joint goals and what we could accomplish.” She says she still hopes to partner with Sidewalk Labs, even though Portland didn’t win the challenge.
Rory McGuinness, who headed up the winning Smart Cities application as the deputy development director of Columbus, says his team saw value in Flow’s multimodal transit-information capabilities as a way of improving the city’s tragically high rate of infant mortality. Flow could help connect pregnant women with both medical care and transportation options, and help clinics follow up with moms-to-be who don’t make pre-natal appointments, he says.
Still, buying into Flow isn’t a foregone conclusion for Columbus. Though this platform will come free with the city’s win, “a lot of people offer the same kinds of [technologies],” McGuinness says. “We just don't blindly want to accept something without seeing what else is out there.” McGuinness also adds that Sidewalk Labs’ sample contract wasn’t really any more or less stringent than what any other vendor’s might be. It will be some time, he says, before Columbus is ready to decide whether it wants to do business with them.
Which is all to say: Sidewalk Labs does not really seem to be building a grand conspiracy. It’s building a business. And no, this is not an endorsement of their products. Simply put, there is clearly interest in the kind of products the company offers. Indeed, many, many cities already contract with big corporations whose software collects and analyzes municipal data. For better or for worse, those types of partnerships are fundamental to the whole “smart cities” movement. On that basis, Sidewalk Labs isn’t any more or less calculating than the IBMs, Xeroxes, or Siemenses of the world.
On the other hand, Sidewalk Labs is rumored to be developing its very own smart city, built around Google’s autonomous vehicles. A mid-sized, real-world city like Columbus could make an ideal testing ground for technologies that will one day underpin Google-Ville. Then, that world domination theory might be worth revisiting.