Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google, has created a spinoff company called Sidewalk Labs that aims to improve cities.

The company has teamed up with the US Department of Transportation to develop a “transportation coordination platform” named Flow that collects data in real time that cities can use to optimise road, parking, and transit systems. The seven semi-finalist cities in the department’s Smart Cities Challenge are also involved in developing the platform.

Access to data about traffic congestion and transit planning has been lacking in most cities. Daniel L. Doctoroff, Sidewalk’s chief executive, wrote in an article in Fastcodesign that he had heard from planners that “greater visibility into travel demand, via data, is a critical component to help them plan stronger transit networks.”

The Flow platform aims to provide that visibility through data. According to the Sidewalk Labs web site, “Flow analytics help cities understand how roads are being used and how people may respond to policy, infrastructure, or technology changes.”

The software collects data from a number of sources, such as Google Maps and Waze, an app that lets users share traffic information in real time. In addition, Flow can “integrate aggregated, anonymized smartphone data from billions of miles of trips.” The company says Flow is an open platform project that can work with mobility apps, transit operators, infrastructure operators, and others.

The project also collects data from sensors and kiosks, such as the LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks, “to create a real-time view of road and curb usage.” That real-time view helps transit managers adjust routes in real-time as necessary, and the kiosks and other on-street interfaces serve riders who don’t own a smartphone.

Such a real-time view of congestion and transit usage should help planners learn how different events affect traffic flow. Planners can see where congestion is occurring in real time, then analyse contributing factors, such as vehicle breakdown, major sporting event, and so on.

Further making use of this abundant data, Flow aims to help planners conduct experiments virtually to gauge the results of adding capacity, such as a carpool lane or bus route, at the places where congestion develops. The program can “simulate the impact of new roads, transit routes, mobility services, and incentives on traffic by asking 'what if' questions and sharing data across Flow cities.”

In addition to expanded use of data in real time, greater use of technology can help to integrate all elements of transportation systems. Doctoroff noted that cities are “already developing a more integrated view of transport options across modes, as well as universal farecard technologies to match.”

Parking can also be a quagmire, so the Flow platform includes technology- and data-focused strategies as potential solutions. Flow’s “Dynamic parking” offers real-time data to drivers, and routes them “directly to available parking, provides them with pricing, and shows availability at the beginning of their journey to avoid circling and encourage alternative modes of transit.”

Another parking solution, “virtual parking”, or shared parking, can make use of the vast number of parking spaces that are in use at certain times of day, but are off-limits at other times. Often, those parking spaces are used only during business hours, but there’s no efficient way to allocate them at other times.

As Willa Ng noted in the company’s publication Sidewalk Talk, technology provides options for addressing these problems. “Many parking lots already have entry/exit counters. If we combine those with aggregated, anonymized location data from smartphones, we can get a pretty good idea of when and where parking spaces are available, without requiring operators to install new equipment.” That data can then be analysed and distributed in real time, with drivers using wayfinding apps and in-car navigation to locate available spaces and pay securely.

These tech-based solutions simply use data to better manage existing resources, and further enable cities to optimise the number of parking spaces required. That allows developers more space and money for the more human-centric elements of their projects.

In addition, “dynamic pricing” of parking, charging more money at times of peak demand, can manage supply while increasing revenues that can be re-invested in transportation systems. Doctoroff noted successful dynamic parking pilot programs in San Francisco and Seattle.

As Doctoroff explained, by “bringing together new sources of real-time data, Flow can provide a comprehensive picture of where people want to go, and when they want to go there, that’s never been easily available to transportation planners.”