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Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs plans to take over public transport in Columbus, Ohio

When it was spun out from Google last year, Sidewalk Labs promised to improve urban living by creating “smart cities.” Now, in documents obtained by the Guardian, we’ve got an idea of exactly how the Alphabet company envisions these cities will work. In proposals offered to Columbus, Ohio — the winner of the $40 million Smart City challenge award organized by the US Department of Transport — Sidewalk Labs says it will use camera-equipped cars to keep track of empty private parking spaces and offer them for short-term rental, and combine various methods of transport under one app, integrating car-sharing services, bus routes, and even bike lanes to create a new kind of public transport.

The company is reportedly offering Columbus a three-year trial of its capabilities, bringing 100 Wi-Fi kiosks as well as systems it says are “new superpowers to extend access and mobility.” The project is built around Sidewalk Labs’ Flow software, introduced earlier this year as a tool designed to manage congestion and parking problems, with an eye to the eventual introduction of self-driving cars. Using Flow and data from Google Maps’ camera cars, Sidewalk Labs could tally all the parking spaces in a city, then using data from drivers and parking meters to estimate whether they would be free in real-time.

Parking is estimated to be responsible for 30 percent of city traffic

It makes sense that Sidewalk Labs would target parking first in overhauling urban transport — drivers searching for parking are estimated to be responsible for 30 percent of city traffic — but the documents show that the company also has plans to open up new spaces previously unavailable to the public. The company aims to convince private garages to open up their spaces when not in use, adding new listings to the Flow database as what Sidewalk Labs called “virtualized parking.” The price of these spaces would vary dependent on demand, going up near leisure facilities on weekends, for example, and down in business districts.

Sidewalk Labs is selling the concept as a “public relations winner” that will also pay its own way, each parking space bringing in about $2,000 a year to cities. But less of a PR victory would be its “optimized parking enforcement” module, which works out the best route for law enforcement agents to take to monitor illegal parking — Sidewalk Labs says it could earn a medium-sized city up to $4 million a year in fines.

This parking scheme comes alongside an ambitious plan to fold various transportation options together under one app, called Flow Transit. The software sounds like a beefed-up Google Maps, offering full directions, as well as estimated price and duration, for routes that use buses and taxis as well as car-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Payment would even be possible inside the app, and for its demonstration period, Sidewalk Labs requests that 90,000 low-income Flow Transit users are given subsidies.

Buses could be threatened by Flow Transit

Flow Transit could help simplify transport and condense the myriad travel apps into one source, but some have expressed concern about Alphabet’s monopoly on both the data and the income from the potential smart city. The proposal requires that demo cities give out subsidies and take payment for all transport and parking services through Sidewalk Labs’ systems, locking out competing companies and essentially privatizing public travel under the aegis of Alphabet. Buses and other traditional public transport sources could also be threatened, too, as money that would normally be spent on bus passes and other tickets goes to Uber instead — which the Guardian notes Google owns around five percent of.

The city of Columbus is expected to receive one percent of the revenue from Flow Transit, or about $2.25 million a year — Sidewalk Labs did not say how much it would be taking in — but it would also be expected to re-train police officers, update road infrastructure, and constantly share data with the company. Sidewalk Labs also expects its partners to take the lead in political moves, expecting them to be responsible for “clearing policy hurdles in order to make implementations possible.” If the Ohio city does see value in Sidewalk Labs’ vision of a future city, it could reportedly put its parking plan into practice as soon as next January, with its Flow Transit app working from July.


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