Google’s smart city-oriented subsidiary has developed a transportation coordination platform that gathers and analyses data on urban mobility flows. The seven finalists of the Smart City Challenge initiated by the US Department of Transportation will have the opportunity to test it out for free.

Sidewalk Labs’ Flow platform designed to take the pulse of US cities

Sidewalk Labs has just announced the launch of a platform designed to help local authorities manage their transportation flows more efficiently. This new tool, which goes by the eminently logical name of Flow, aggregates large volumes of anonymous data on city traffic and population flows. The basic aim is to help local authorities ensure smoother vehicle flows on the city streets, eliminating bottlenecks and reducing the number of collisions, optimise public transportation routes and provide car drivers with real-time information on traffic jams and available parking spaces.

Support for the Smart City Challenge finalists

Set up in 2015, Sidewalk Labs is a Google subsidiary whose basic mission is to find solutions to a range of smart city issues. The company has recently recruited a high-powered team of experts, including engineers and architects, who are tasked to identify the common problems now facing big cities and come up with workable solutions for designing the city of the future. The company has already set up LinkNYC, an ultra-powerful WiFi network, for New York City. The seven cities – San Francisco, Portland, Kansas City, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Austin and Denver – recently selected to go forward to the final stage of the Smart City Challenge will also be receiving, in addition to a financial grant of $100,000, support to get an advanced WiFi system up and running and will be given free access to the Flow platform. Launched by the US Department of Transportation last December, the Smart City Challenge attracted entries from several dozen mid-sized US cities looking to modernise their transport systems. The seven finalists competing to win the prize cheque worth $40 million have until June to start implementing the ideas they have put forward.

Collecting data to help improve urban mobility

In addition to providing high-speed Internet connections for the convenience of city residents, the WiFi hubs installed by Sidewalk Labs will contain sensors designed to gather a large amount of data that will feed into the Flow platform, meanwhile also providing local authorities with up-to-the-minute information on such factors as air quality and local weather. SideWalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff has also revealed that the data processed on the Flow platform could be made available to entrepreneurs wishing to create new navigation apps. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx points out that while it might not be easy to eradicate the problem of decaying infrastructure and creaking public services which is rife throughout the US, the cities working with SideWalk Labs will at least be able to learn more about how to use the latest information and communication technology to find palliative solutions. The United States has a huge number of roads, many of which are now saturated to the point where they cannot be properly maintained, and putting more vehicles on the roads and/or adding to the number of roads is not going to improve mobility in the long term. Data collection and analysis, on the other hand, can help local authorities understand for instance why bottlenecks appear and find a workable solution involving a combination of carpooling, expansion of public transit resources, plus alternative means of transport such as cycling and walking and, in the longer term, self-driving vehicles.

By Guillaume Renouard