Portland’s Parking, Transit Management Loses Out on Google 'Sidewalk Labs' Integration

When the U.S. DOT chose Columbus, Ohio, as the winner of the Smart City Challenge, the Google subsidiary lost its vision of a more connected Portland.

by Elliot Njus, The Oregonian / June 29, 2016

(TNS) -- A Google sister company recently sought to integrate itself into Portland's parking and transit management.

The proposal came shortly after Portland was in March named a finalist in the U.S. Transportation Department's Smart City Challenge, a competition for a $40 million federal grant that ultimately went to Columbus, Ohio.

Google sibling Sidewalk Labs sent Portland and other finalist cities documents, obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive, that offer a rare look into the company's plans. It's also a glimpse at a future where cities are increasingly dependent on technology firms for services to help deal with urban congestion.

Sidewalk was a partner in the competition and offered temporarily free use of its technology to the winning city. That would include access to goodies like its digital information kiosks that double as gigabit internet hotspots, as well as its Flow apps for parking and transportation management.

The parking software would help drivers identify unused parking near their destination, direct them to it and facilitate payment. It leveraged Google's experience with mapping software and machine learning with the goal of easing parking pains and traffic.

Its transit-focused app, meanwhile, mirrored Portland's proposal for an app that would let users comparison-shop for trips around the city, weighing the cost and time commitment for options such as driving, public transit and biking.

But The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported Sidewalk was at least initially pushing cities toward tight integration with Google-owned apps, a move that could be difficult to unwind later.

And it also proposed directing government subsidies toward private services like taxis, Lyft and Uber and away from public transit. That, experts told the paper, could weaken cities' subsidy-dependent public transit systems and ultimately hurt low-income riders.

In a statement to The Oregonian/OregonLive, Sidewalk chief operating officer Anand Babu said its goal was to make more data available to cities so they can make better policy decisions when it comes to transportation.

"Flow is about using data and analytics to help cities work with their citizens to increase the efficiency of road, parking, and transit use, improving access to mobility for all," Babu said in the statement.

Portland, for its part, said its proposal for the grant competition focused on open data that could be used by third parties. Though its proposal was similar to the technology promoted by Sidewalk, the city said it talked with multiple providers that offer similar services.

"We really would like to partner with Sidewalk Labs in the future," Margi Bradway, a transportation bureau manager who worked on Portland's Smart City Challenge application. "But we haven't determined how or why or when."

She added that any agreement with Sidewalk would have gone through an extensive public process.

©2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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