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Sidewalk Labs’ Role in Columbus Smart City Program Appears Limited For Now

Barb Bennett, left, president/COO of Vulcan Inc., and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, center, present the Smart City Challenge award to Columbus, Ohio Mayor Andrew Ginther.

Barb Bennett, left, president/COO of Vulcan Inc., and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, center, present the Smart City Challenge award to Columbus, Ohio Mayor Andrew Ginther. Jay LaPrete / AP Photo

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Meanwhile, Ohio’s capital is forging ahead with plans for millions of dollars in high-tech transportation upgrades. U.S. DOT officials will visit the city this week.

As a sweeping program to test new transportation technology in Columbus, Ohio gets underway, Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs is on track to have only narrow involvement—limited to a logistics system for non-emergency medical travel, according to program officials and a document the company submitted to the city.

One of Sidewalk Labs’ offerings is Flow, a data platform designed to use advanced analytics to help cities address urban transportation problems, such as traffic congestion and limited parking availability. There has been some hand-wringing in recent months over whether the platform might afford the company too much influence over areas like transit and parking enforcement.

After a report from The Guardian in June about the company’s ambitions, one headline screamed: “Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs plans to take over public transport in Columbus, Ohio.” Sidewalk is a unit of Alphabet Inc., the same conglomerate that owns Google.

Attention shifted to the company’s role in Columbus after the fast-growing Midwest metropolis won the Smart City Challenge in late June. Through this grant program the city gained access to up to $40 million of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and as much as $10 million from Vulcan Inc., a firm started by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

As the winner of the challenge, Columbus, which is Ohio’s capital and has about 850,000 residents, is expected to act as a testbed for emerging transportation technologies.

The city is planning a variety of projects, including self-driving shuttles, sensors intended to improve street safety and the flow of traffic, electric vehicle infrastructure, and a computer system to store and make available massive amounts of transportation data.

Also central to the “Smart Columbus” program are plans to improve access to jobs, healthcare and amenities like grocery stores and parks for residents living in lower income areas—specifically in a section of the city north of downtown known as Linden.

It’s this portion of the program where Sidewalk Labs is poised to play a part.

Potential Sidewalk Labs Involvement ‘Very Specific’

Earlier this summer, Sidewalk submitted a document to Columbus that stakes out its proposed terms for how it might partner with the city. In it, the company offered only to “explore the possibilities” of how it could help Columbus “reinvent” non-emergency medical transportation.

Initially, the document says, this would involve “fact finding, brainstorming, and ideation.”

“At the end of this exploratory process, if Sidewalk Labs and Smart Columbus have identified opportunities for further Sidewalk Labs involvement—such as developing trip planning and payment platforms between patients and transportation service providers,” the document says, then they’ll go on to discuss the requirements for a second phase of product development.

Asked about the company’s role in Smart Columbus, the program’s manager, Aparna Dial, who is also deputy director of Columbus’ Department of Public Service, said by phone last week that the city had not yet entered into any formal agreements with Sidewalk Labs.

But she did offer an example, also referenced in the Smart Columbus proposal, of how Flow might help the city improve medical care in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This is a special concern in South Linden, where infant mortality is nearly four times the national rate, according to the city.

If a pregnant woman were to contact a local health clinic to make a prenatal appointment, Dial said, the receptionist might ask if the woman needs help arranging transportation. Should the woman say, “yes,” the receptionist would use their computer to make trip arrangements.

The arrangements would likely incorporate a transportation payment system the city has proposed, which would feature a pass people could use across different transportation modes like buses, bike share and possibly even app-based ride-booking services like Lyft and Uber. This pass would be available even to people who don’t have credit or debit cards.

“Say the pregnant woman starts her trip, and then part way through the trip she becomes ill and returns home,” Dial said. “The Flow analytic engine would then identify that the trip was started, not completed, and then it could send a message to the local health clinic, or the city health department … So that they could do a follow up.”

Jeff Ortega handles public relations and government affairs for the Department of Public Service and was on the call with Dial last week. “If Sidewalk Labs were to be engaged, it would only be for that very small portion,” he stressed. “It’s very specific on the tracking of the trip planning.”

Sidewalk would not handle the payment system, Ortega said. He added that no Smart Columbus agreements “have been signed with any company at this time.”

Planning Continues

On Monday and Tuesday this week, officials from the city and the U.S. Department of Transportation will meet in Columbus to discuss the Smart Columbus program, which is still in a planning phase. Planning is expected to continue through the end of the year, according to Dial.

A realistic timeframe for when proposed technology could appear on city streets is mid to late 2017, she said. To start, according to Dial, the city should be able to accomplish some “quick wins.”

She pointed to plans for “smart” street lights as an example. These would have LED lamps and motion sensors so that they would turn on when a pedestrian is walking nearby. There are also plans to outfit light posts in Linden with equipment to provide free Wi-Fi internet access.

The city does not have unlimited amounts of time to roll out the technology they’ve proposed.

“We have to complete all deployments by 2019, so it’s not that big a window,” Dial said.

Although the $40 million of U.S. Department of Transportation funding was highly publicized, the federal government has not simply cut Columbus a check for that amount. “The city has to spend the money and then we have to apply for reimbursement from U.S. DOT,” Dial said.

“We have a lot of thick guidelines to follow,” she added. “We don’t get 50 million in cash.”

As part of Smart Columbus, the city says it has additional commitments from private and public sector partners equivalent to $90 million—on top of the potential $50 million award.

Looking ahead, the program will not only be about deploying high-tech hardware.

“We have groups that are involved in a lot of the mapping and the geospatial work that needs to be done, public policy, urban and regional planning, law,” Carla Bailo, assistant vice president for mobility research and business development at The Ohio State University, said last week.

Between 25 and 30 faculty members, along with students from Ohio State, are slated to be involved in Smart Columbus, according to Bailo. They’ll work on a number of fronts.

One person on the team has a psychology background, Bailo noted, before highlighting questions related to how people will interact with autonomous vehicles. “There are so many elements that are uncharted territory,” she said.

‘Eager to See How it Unfolds’

In Linden, meanwhile, community leaders have high hopes for the program.

“We can’t wait until it’s all done,” said George Walker Jr., who leads the South Linden Area Commission. “It’s going to help our infant mortality rate, it’s going to help our seniors get from one place to another.”

donna J. Hicho (who spells her name with a lowercase D) is executive director of the Greater Linden Development Corp., a nonprofit group that works on economic development issues in the area. She explained that many residents there rely heavily on bus transit to get around.

While the bus system is comprehensive, she said, routes don’t necessarily go directly from Linden to where there are good job opportunities in the city. It can also be tough, she pointed out, to carry home enough groceries for a family when riding on a bus.

“We hope that some of the things that they’re looking at will give people more accessibility to some of the other options available,” she said.

Hicho is also enthusiastic about opportunities to connect Smart Columbus initiatives with local schools, to get young people interested in new transportation technologies, and to expose them to career opportunities they may not otherwise know about.

Not everyone is confident Smart Columbus will strike at some of the deep rooted problems in Linden.

Mitchell Ellison is founder of South Linden’s C.R.A.C.K. House Ministries, which seeks to assist people recovering from drug addiction. Speaking by phone last week, Ellison emphasized that he’s not opposed to Smart Columbus and welcomes some of the proposed projects. But he’s also not sure how much the program will help the neighborhood.

“I’ve been working there for 18 years in the community, and I grew up in that community,” he said. “I personally don’t see just transportation as being the biggest issue.”

Asked where he would direct investments in South Linden, possibilities he mentioned included education, financial literacy programs and drug and alcohol abuse prevention.

While smoother connections to employment centers could be good, he said “the bigger issue would be the mindset, the heart of the people, them seeing themselves as having potential for the job.”

“Are they ready to be interviewed? Do they have a resume?” he added. “Getting there is the easy part. It’s getting the job that’s the more difficult part.”

Hicho noted that Smart Columbus is happening alongside other initiatives in Linden focused on economic development, public health and education. “It cannot be just the transportation, or just the internet service, there have to be other things,” she said. “I think everybody sees that.”

Listening to the neighborhood will be crucial as well, according to Hicho, who believes “ongoing communication and engagement of the community is going to have to be extensive.” Referring to Smart Columbus, she added, “we’re all very eager to see how it unfolds.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter at Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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