When you were in high school or college, did you ever read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and think, “Cool book, but it could never really happen?” I did. Apparently, I was wrong. Alphabet, the company that owns Google, wants to revamp public transportation in major U.S. cities, primarily by privatizing it and funneling lots of money to — you guessed it — Google. The plan is ambitious, to say the least, although it does rely on increased rich/poor economic inequality and decreased government efficiency.
The Guardian did a full report where it unearthed hundreds of Alphabet documents available via public records. While everything the company has done is above-board, it also hasn’t been very vocal about its plans, leading to some digging on The Guardian’s part. The U.S. Department of Transportation granted $50 million to the city of Columbus, Ohio, which may work with Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, to revamp its public transit system to the tune of $50 million.
Sidewalk Labs itself was part of Google until 2015, and since then, it’s had big plans for urban spaces. If you’ve observed the free Wi-Fi kiosks littering New York City, that was Sidewalk Labs’ idea. The company’s first idea seems fairly innocuous: Use cameras to help direct urban motorists to unoccupied parking spots. Finding parking in a big city can take almost as long as reaching your destination, so this could help address a real problem for a large chunk of people.
From there, things start to get a little sketchier. In addition to maximizing street parking, Sidewalk Labs also plans to rent out unused parking spots from other private companies, which are usually reserved for employees. Rather than have reserved spots after an employee leaves for the day, Sidewalk wants companies to open them up for additional income. (One could argue that this defeats the purpose of a “reserved” spot.) Naturally, Sidewalk would retain the ability to adjust prices for each spot based on how popular the location is on any given night.
The government won’t really have anything to say about the price-fixing scheme, at any rate. Sidewalk’s city management software, Flow, can also calculate the most efficient routes for traffic police, helping them earn an additional $4 million per year in citations. Of course, the people getting fined will be those in public parking spots rather than those in Sidewalk’s protected private ones.
Public transportation is the other side of the coin, and Sidewalk also sees opportunities to make money there, mostly by taking advantage of almost-certainly-not-built-on-a-house-of-cards “gig economy.” Rather than, say, invest in better buses and subways, Sidewalk wants to integrate Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, taxis and bike-shares into Google Maps. To pioneer the program, Sidewalk plans to give up to 90,000 low-income users access ride-sharing subsidies, encouraging them to use Uber or Lyft rather than public buses.
(The plan neglects to mention what happens next, when the subsidies run out, and users attempt to return to bus service, only to find service slashed due to a lack of ridership.)
Overall, the whole plan smacks of the increasingly popular idea that all public services could be managed better by private companies, end-user costs be damned. Sure, Uber and Lyft only exist because some people can’t pay rent while others would never deign to ride a public bus, but that sounds suspiciously like someone other than Sidewalk’s problem. So long as public institutions (like Columbus) are strapped for cash and private ones see an opportunity to make more, big companies like Google can, and will, go a long way to convince us that this is the normal, proper state of things.
Columbus hasn’t signed any binding agreements with Sidewalk, so this plan is still speculative. But if Columbus doesn’t take Sidewalk up on its generous offer, some other city will. Public transportation has been a thorny issue, particularly in tech hub cities like San Francisco and Austin, and it’s not going away anytime soon. But if you found William Gibson’s world of megacorporation-privatized cities, perpetually underemployed underclass and fast-but-prohibitively-expensive travel unrealistic, you might want to think again.
UPDATE: BerlinRosen, the PR firm representing Sidewalk Labs, got in touch with Tom's Guide and provided the following statement:
“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,” says Anand Babu, COO of Sidewalk Labs. “Flow will allow cities to understand their transportation systems in real time, and could be used to improve and plan public transportation, guide drivers directly to parking, or point commuters to shared mobility options they can use when public transportation is not an option.”
“The DOT Smart City Challenge has inspired cities to shift away from operating in traditional agency silos and towards creating a coordinated, outcome-focused transportation system that reduces congestion and enhances transport equity. We are proud to partner with Transportation for America and cities across the country to continue this important dialogue.”
The statement does not address the concerns I brought up directly, but it does make Flow seem like a secondary alternative rather than a full replacement for traditional public transportation. If Columbus fully partners with Sidewalk Labs, we'll be able to observe firsthand and see how the situation plays out.