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Become a parking savant with Sidewalk Labs’ new curb visualization tool

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Alphabet’s smart city spinoff has mapped all of San Francisco’s parking rules

Urban curbsides have traditionally been allocated based on real estate: parking meters in front of shops, loading zones near supermarkets, no-parking areas at warehouses, unmetered parking in residential areas, and so on. But with the explosion of new mobility options like ride-hailing, car-sharing, and bike-sharing, and the looming specter of self-driving vehicles on the horizon, cities are starting to rethink how they allocate curb space. They are beginning to realize that if they don’t get ahead of the technology, it could lead to chaos on the curb.

Aiming to help on that front is Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s smart city incubator. In February, the company spun out a new business called Coord, which is focused on helping cities and mobility companies better manage traffic congestion and parking problems on their streets through a cloud-based platform. 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.

Seeing that there was only so much good it could do as a B2B product, Coord today is releasing its highly detailed map of San Francisco’s curbsides as a free digital tool for everyone to use. After digitizing the city’s curbs, including parking meters, parking signs, and curb stripes, Coord condensed all that data into a map that’s searchable by date, time, vehicle type, and desired action. Are you a delivery driver looking to load or unload some goods for about 30 minutes? Coord’s curb explorer can show you where that may or may not be allowed. The same goes for ride-sharing drivers looking for an ideal spot to drop off passengers or vehicle owners looking for a choice parking spot.

Using the Curb Explorer, I was able to determine that the curb in front of The Verge’s office in the Embarcadero was mostly a “no stopping zone,” with a small area right in front of the building for passenger loading. Good news for anyone taking an Uber or Lyft to work. Bad news for anyone dumb enough to drive their own car.

The team at Coord used an internal app called Surveyor instead of relying on conventional surveying methods to gather its data. But there was still plenty of shoe leather work involved. Employees walked the streets of San Francisco, taking pictures of curb cuts and prominent intersections. The app, using augmented reality tech, then read the signs, measured the distance between spaces, and snapped it to a 3D map — all in about four minutes. Coord then took all of these esoteric street rules and untranslatable parking signs and distilled into information that could be easily digested in a searchable map.

Looking for free parking on a Monday morning? Most neighborhoods have free two-hour parking, except for SoMa, the Financial District, and Union Square. Need to ditch your car-sharing vehicle for the night? After 6PM, the vast majority of curbs in the coverage areas turn into a free parking haven (though some require permits) until the next morning.

Coord’s map could also prompt city officials to rethink how they allocate curb space. According to San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s TNC Today data, the Financial District, Union Square, and SoMa see the most intense ride-hail pickup and drop-off activities, with peaks at 8AM and 6–7PM on weekdays. This area also happens to be largely a no-stopping zone, which by law forbids taxi or TNC vehicles from picking up or dropping off passengers along these curbs. Maybe the city will reconsider these rules after seeing Coord’s data.

Or maybe not. Our cities are still mostly pretty dumb, mired in red tape, and generally unresponsive to change. And the idea that any of them will transform into a glittering digital utopia 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.

“We hope the information we are making available today will not only help the public and private participants in the mobility market interact with the curb more efficiently and safely, but also enhance cities’ capacity to reshape their regulations and management of curbs,” Coord says. “We believe that widely distributing accurate information about mobility services, such as the use of a curb, is a key step in accelerating the adoption of a digital mobility market that more effectively matches mobility supply with increased demand.”