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This Plan Could Save Your City’s Busted Public Transit

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It’s no secret that US cities need better transportation systems. The US Department of Transportation (USDOT) and Sidewalk Labs think they have an answer: A new platform that will collect and analyze transportation data using sensors similar to the LinkNYC kiosks that recently started operating in New York City.

The platform, called Flow, will collect information on everything from bus frequency to foot traffic from sidewalk-installed sensors. In addition, Flow will pull from Google’s extensive troves of data, including Waze. The combination of such real-time analytics could help cities to design more nimble public transit routes, mitigate vehicular congestion, and work more effectively with rideshare startups.


Flow will specifically serve low-income and minority populations who are dependent on transit, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said today on a call. “By embracing smart technologies and concepts that eliminate the digital divide, strengthening connections to jobs and removing physical barriers to access, we can strengthen communities throughout the country.”

Foxx made the announcement with Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet), who gave more details about the partnership. Sidewalk Labs debuted its first major initiative, LinkNYC, last month. LinkNYC turns New York City pay phones into gigabit hotspots. The idea is that Flow will work with these kiosks to provide transit information for people without smartphones, but also act as sensors, collecting data that will help city transportation departments “understand the ground truth in real time,” Doctoroff said. The data could eventually be used to build apps that provide drivers with details about parking availability, or pinpoint the best location for bike share kiosks.


Flow will be prototyped as part of the Smart City Challenge, USDOT’s big transportation initiative that just announced its seven finalists that will compete for $40 million (and an additional $10 million from Vulcan). Those seven cities will help streamline the data-gathering process, and LinkNYC-like kiosks will also be installed throughout the winning city. And since the technology is already installed there, it means New York City could also be among the first cities to use Flow, as well.

The timing could not be better for such an announcement. This week Washington DC’s Metro announced a sudden 29-hour closure of its system for a long-overdue electrical survey, tossing the city into gridlock chaos. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s BART system had an existential crisis on Twitter, admitting that the underfunded and unloved transit system is crumbling beneath its riders.