American cities do a lot of things well, but public transit isn't one of them. Get outside the major metropolitan areas on the East Coast, and you're pretty much hosed without a car - try to treat cities in the Midwest or Texas or California like New York, and you'll soon walk right through your shoes. Even if you do have your own vehicle, parking and traffic can become your personal nightmare. According to a new report in the Guardian, one of the many subsidiaries inside Google's new Alphabet parent company is working on fixing that.
The report says that Flow, a huge and flexible public transportation management system developed by Sidewalk Labs, is being offered to Columbus, Ohio as a large-scale test. In its current form Flow aggregates millions of data points from smartphones, cars, and Wi-Fi hotspots to analyze where city traffic and commuters are most congested, then redirects resources (busses, parking lots and curb spaces, and even private ride-sharing services and bike rentals) to keep everything moving smoothly. Google's extensive experience in mapping and machine learning from driverless cars is a big boon to those efforts. The Guardian's Freedom of Information Act requests indicate that Columbus would get access to the Flow system as part of a three year trial program, along with 100 public Wi-Fi terminals. Columbus has not yet agreed to the trial.
But some of the provisions in Flow may be troubling. In addition to handing vital public service management over to a private company, the plan calls for government subsidies to ride-sharing services - subsidies that might otherwise be spent directly on public mass transit itself. Other previously unpublished details include upgrading public transit and parking payment systems for use with Flow's mobile payments (Android Pay would seem like a natural fit here) and designing public parking areas specifically to boost city revenue. One of the features of the system even calculates the most lucrative routes for parking enforcement and meter maids to take in order to ticket the most possible vehicles.
Under Flow, more or less every data point for traffic management, public and private transport, and public and private parking goes through the Sidewalk company, plus a massive amount of money being spent by consumers and paid to public and private entities. The contract requires cities to clear regulatory hurdles like parking minimums and possibly even create new municipal laws.
All in all, the requirements for Flow could be seen as a huge intrusion of private management into public services, and it isn't clear whether the system's benefits would be worth the amount of control that cities - and their citizens - would be giving up.
- The Guardian