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Google Sister Promises to Relieve Commuting Headaches in Columbus

Sidewalk Lab CEO Dan Doctoroff swears his company’s takeover of the Columbus, Ohio, transit system is nothing but altruistic.

And Rory McGuinness, who led Columbus’ effort to win the Department of Transportation competition that opens the door for Sidewalk Lab, told The Atlantic that City Hall will not “blindly accept something without seeing what else is out there.”

But Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc., which is also the parent company of Google, does offer a radical transformation of parking, driving, and mass transit in the home of Ohio State University.

“By improving urban technology, it’s possible to significantly improve the lives of billions of people around the world,” Google CEO Larry Page said when Sidewalk Labs began operations in June 2015.

“With Sidewalk, we want to supercharge existing efforts in areas such as housing, energy, transportation and government to solve real problems that city-dwellers face every day,” Page added.

That concerns some in Columbus who are afraid the city’s public bus system will be gutted for rideshare services like Uber. They also fear no matter what McGuinness says Columbus will be forced to purchase — and rely exclusively on — Google technologies.

If it all goes wrong, Columbus only has itself to blame. Sidewalk is offering its Flow cloud software to the city because it won a U.S. Department of Transportation $50 million Smart City Challenge grant.

“Revolutionary new transportation technologies and the smart use of data have the potential to save lives; give us back hours lost in traffic; reduce harmful carbon emissions; and provide greater dignity, mobility, and access to opportunity for millions of our fellow Americans,” according to a White House press release.

“The Obama administration is committed to accelerating these technologies and will be taking action this summer to facilitate the safe, efficient, commercial deployment of self-driving cars and vehicle to vehicle communication.”

The Smart City Challenge involved 78 cities. The seven finalists were Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco.

Columbus will receive up to $40 million from the Department of Transportation to carry out its Smart City Plan. Vulcan Inc. will chip in another $10 million, and a range of technology partners including Alphabet’s Sidewalk Lab will provide services.

Columbus won the competition by proposing a centrally connected traffic signal and integrated transportation data system meant to address specific transportation challenges faced in four districts across the city.

Transportation in cars and trucks always ends with parking, so that is also part of the plan.

As is true in most urban areas, parking isn’t easy in Columbus. Much of the traffic that congests city streets is caused by drivers only driving around and around looking for a place to park.

Sidewalk Labs’ Flow software would use camera-equipped vehicles to count all of the public parking spaces and read roadside parking signs. It would then combine that data with information from drivers using Google Maps and live information from city parking meters to estimate which spots are still empty, and direct drivers to those parking spaces.

Flow could also price parking based on supply and demand. For instance, on a busy football weekend, parking would be at a premium. On a Sunday morning when downtown Columbus isn’t usually busy, pricing would go for a relatively low price.

Flow would also be used to change the way public transit is done in Columbus. It would use data, again gathered by Google software, to plot routes and determine the most efficient method of transportation for passengers.

And that’s just the tip of the Sidewalk Labs’ innovation iceberg – what could there possibly be to fear about this?

Plenty, Alexei Pozdnoukhov, the director of the Smart Cities Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Guardian.

While admitting that Google, or possibly Apple, are the only companies in a position to do something like this for Columbus, Pozdnoukhov also pointed out some areas of concern.

He said the concept of variable pricing for parking “was not well received” in San Francisco.

“If Sidewalk can show value to drivers, it could be a different game, but that’s easier said than done,” he said.

Sidewalk could rip public transit from the control of Columbus City Hall and turn it over to private-sector providers like Uber, Pozdnoukhov said.

“The problem is that this money will end up with Uber rather than the transit agencies, undermining their existence. The only public systems that will survive will be light rail and subways,” he said.

Promoting ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft will be quite the change of pace in Columbus. Lyft announced it would “pause” its operations in that city in January because of what were described as “burdensome” regulations in a company press release.

Uber did not suspend operations in Columbus even though it too complained about the regulations.

Despite those regulations, Uber could do very well with the new Sidewalk Labs plan.

Google owns 5 percent of Uber.