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Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs has a plan to bring order to the mobility chaos in our cities

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Coord is a new cloud-based platform for on-demand transportation companies

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Announces $90 Million Road Infrastructure Project Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Once upon a time, a person who wanted to get across town had only a handful of options: car, bus, subway, or walking. Today, there are dozens of ways to get from point A to point B, and not all of them equal (or equally priced). The proliferation of “mobility” services, like ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and car-sharing, is giving many city residents anxiety about what were previously fairly simple travel decisions. Aiming to cut through this clutter, Google’s urban innovation spinoff Sidewalk Labs has just spun off a company of its own that can hopefully bring some sanity to our streets.

It’s called Coord, and it’s a cloud-based platform created by Sidewalk Labs to help cities and mobility companies better manage traffic congestion and parking problems. It’s a bit of code that integrates all the mobility services that have sprung up in cities lately, like ride-hailing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing, as well as legacy transportation services like public transit. For a price, Coord will give software developers at those companies access to thorough, standardized API data on tolls, parking, and curb space in cities across the US.

“There’s a bewildering array of mobility options that seems to be increasing every day,” said Stephen Smyth, the new CEO of Coord. “In the old days, it was a pretty simple choice: either I’m walking, taking a cab, taking a subway, bus maybe. People understood, more or less, the time-money trade-off. Navigation apps have made some of those things a little easier to see, but there’s a tremendous amount of information about services that’s not available and not easy to discover in a lot of mobile apps today.”

He added, “We’re really focused on surfacing this high-quality information about mobility options for people and for enterprises and also the city to use, and then actually helping make it easy to transact.”

Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet’s effort to seize the surging interest in “smart cities,” in which our dense, concrete environments are transformed into high-tech, digital playgrounds, where cars talk to streetlights, health care is an app, and your smartphone is your gatekeeper for the totality of city life. It’s a smidge utopian, but then again, this is Google, a company that once mused about “set[ting] aside a part of the world” for technology experimentation. Indeed, the rumor mill has been churning about a mythical “Google Island” since even before the company spun off Sidewalk Labs as its smart city incubator.

Of course, Alphabet is actively doing this right now — not on some island, but in the middle of one of the most vibrant cities in North America. Last year, the Google spinoff announced a deal with the city of Toronto to develop 800 acres of waterfront property into its own digital utopia.

Alphabet isn’t alone in trying to sell its smart city vision. Bill Gates is investing $70 million to build one in Arizona. Ford Motor Company is trying to shrug off its old identity as a manufacturer of dumb automobiles and is selling its Transportation Mobility Cloud as an operating system for getting around. Amazon Web Services has a smart cities and mobility group, as does Intel, Siemens, and IBM.

To be sure, our cities are still mostly dumb. They are slow-moving and generally unresponsive to change. And the idea that any of them will transform into a glittering digitopolis overnight without huge infusions of capital is pretty foolish. That’s why projects like Coord, that can help cities innovate around the edges, will be interesting to watch.

One of Coord’s employees surveying parking signs using the company’s Surveyor app.
Coord

For instance, Surveyor is an internal app created by Coord to help digitize curb space data in a city. The company’s employees walked the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, taking pictures of curb cuts and prominent intersections. The app, using augmented reality tech, then reads the signs, measures the distance between spaces, and snaps it to a 3D map — all in about four minutes. This information can then be used by cities and mobility companies to better allocate parking zones and manage the flow of traffic.

“We see the curb as this humble piece of real estate that has been overlooked, but is becoming important in managing transportation in cities,” Smyth said.

Tolls are another issue that Coord wants to help digitize. The company has data on 86 percent of the tollways in the US, including bridges and tunnels. Most navigation apps have basic tolling information, but lack data on dynamic pricing or variables like multi-passengers or the number of axles on a vehicle. Coord hopes to package and sell this information to mobility companies so users can get a more comprehensive picture of the cost of traveling from point A to point B.

As a business that aims to sell its products to other businesses, you probably won’t hear much from Coord in the future. But if you have a smartphone, and you use that smartphone to make transportation decisions, chances are you may find yourself benefiting from Coord’s technology. “It’s no secret that ride-hail, car-share, and bike-share are prominent and fast-growing modes in cities,” Smyth said. “We see an opportunity to help those modes to grow to help them be good partners with cities.”