As much activity happens on the sides of streets every day, it's not easy to log the features of a curb. So a company backed by Sidewalk Labs — a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet — is looking to crowdsource the information with a new mobile app.
The more popular bikes, e-bikes, scooters and carpools become, the more important it will be for people to know curbside rules.
Realizing that most cities don’t have a full digital record of these rules for any given place or time, Coord, a cloud-based city planning platform backed by Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs in New York, released an iPhone app called Surveyor last month for collecting data on street features such as parking signs, fire hydrants and curb cuts.
According to a blog post from Coord head of product Amit Glazer, the idea behind the app was to expedite the time-consuming task of having a surveyor manually write down descriptions of every marker and space on every road. Google Maps, he said, is neither precise nor clearly rendered enough to be a shortcut here. Collecting this data will still require surveyors to travel the streets in person, but with this app in hand, they can mark the beginning of a curb by tapping a button, walk down the sidewalk taking pictures of signs and flagging other features, and mark the end of the block with another tap.
GPS technology is not quite accurate enough for this work, so the app measures distances with the iPhone’s camera, accelerometer and a patent-pending algorithm that uses augmented-reality technology originally developed for gaming. Collected data is automatically sent to Coord’s Curbs API.
Coord CEO and co-founder Stephen Smyth said he envisions at least three uses for public agencies: asset management, for knowing where all the signs, spaces and markers are; sharing this information with users of city infrastructure, which is the primary focus of the Curbs API; and city planning purposes, such as seeing where curb usage does or doesn’t match designated zoning.
Smyth said the data collected by Surveyor is also for urban transit companies.
“Our goal is to provide informational services to companies who operate in cities,” he said. “Dockless bike share has become a thing, scooter-sharing has become a thing, there are more and more delivery services, e-commerce continues to grow … so parking has been, in many cases, supplanted by other needs along the curb, and we’re seeing curbs becoming increasingly contested. That’s why we’ve evolved our thinking beyond parking … and thinking about the curb holistically, cataloging all of the different potential uses of curbs.”
A news release said Coord has been using Surveyor internally for more than a year to collect curb data in a handful of cities across the U.S. to support its suite of APIs, and has also piloted the app with several public agencies, auto manufacturers, mobility service providers and transportation engineering consultants.
“Economic development agencies are also interested in this data, because it helps to unlock the value of the zones they’re responsible for, for delivery services, et cetera,” he said.
Smyth added that the company has started testing a private beta program in Germany and Italy.
Cities have gotten along without digital maps of their curb rules so far, but the notion of studying curb use to improve city operations is not without precedent. Blogger Matt Chapman, for example, gives a thorough online account of reducing parking tickets on a Chicago street by about 50 percent after analyzing seven years of parking-ticket data to identify a problematic area, then seeing how it could be better marked.
Editor's note: The headline of this article was changed to reflect the ownership structure of Sidewalk Labs.