Sidewalk Labs: The Urban Parking Conundrum and its Digital Solutions
Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, has partnered with local governments to use digital technology to solve the problems of urban parking.
Following the recent widely-publicized skirmishes between technology companies and governments, including clashes with Airbnb, Uber and Google, it would be easy to write the two sides of the battle off as mortal enemies – one working tirelessly to disrupt the status quo and the other working to manage the excesses of new ideas. But collaboration between local governments and technological innovation opens up vast opportunities to improve the services provided to constituents and optimize operational efficiency.
Sidewalk Labs, Flow and the Smart City Competition
Sidewalk Labs was founded by Google in 2015 as “an urban innovation company that will develop technology at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, with a focus on improving city life for residents, businesses and governments.” Though the company is still in the process of developing the suite of products it plans to introduce, it announced in March 2016 a partnership with the Federal Department of Transportation as a part of the “Smart City” competition, which awards $40m in grant money to encourage cities to integrate technology into their strategic planning and operations. As a part of the partnership, Sidewalk Labs would work with the seven finalists to use data to better manage transportation infrastructure, in conjunction with their “Flow” software platform, which is built to improve urban efficiency through four key transportation problems and solutions:
- Unmatched parking supply and demand requires better land use
- Siloed understanding of city assets requires better information
- Lack of visibility into travel demand requires better planning
- Discontinuity of transport options requires better decision-making
The Parking Conundrum
Parking and its associated issues (i.e. time wasted circling for a spot, land wasted on unused spots) represent a key area of focus and collaboration for Sidewalk Labs and local governments. According to one 2015 study, in mixed-use urban areas, parking is oversupplied by 65% on average and according to another, 14% of all the incorporated land in Los Angeles County is committed to parking, resulting in 18.6m spaces or 3.3 spots for every registered vehicle. This conflicts wildly with the fact that many drivers still struggle to find parking, as well as the fact that cities are actively working to disincentivize the use of personal automobiles.
Part of this problem results from price differentials across street and garage parking. In a national study of downtown parking, the average price of street parking is 5 times cheaper than garage parking and in many places is free, creating an incentive to fight hard to find the last free curb space. As George Costanza infamously said on Seinfeld while looking for a spot, “Why should I pay when, if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?” In a recent study in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, 28% of drivers interviewed were searching for curb parking in just this way. This type of circling creates the equivalent of a roving parking lot, creating congestion for through-traffic, and increasing travel time, wasted gas, and wear and tear on vehicles.
Unused spots and endless circling combine to create an ineffective public system.
In Sidewalk Labs’ collaboration with local governments, the key to managing the parking problem is the facilitation of a shared parking system. For most lots in urban environments, demand is predictable, but varies based on events and times of day, creating enormous waste. For example, employee-only parking lots are unused outside of business hours, similar to patrons-only parking lots when a restaurant is closed, though one lot could easily accommodate both businesses over the course of a day. Establishments and neighborhoods currently hoard parking spaces, but transparency of rules, pricing and availability could help surmount these barriers to allow sharing. Additional infrastructure investment would likely not even be needed since combining data from entry/exit counters at parking lots with aggregated, anonymized data from smartphones allows for sufficient tracking and monitoring. Sidewalk Labs has even proposed that these ideas be integrated with smartphone-based GPS navigation to facilitate arrival and payment. By optimizing pre-existing parking spaces, shared parking could free up more space for development and reduce circling for spots, emissions, congestion, and waste.
Sidewalk Labs spans the realms of tech startups and think tanks, and their vast, long-term mandate encompasses nearly all aspects of urban life, so few areas remain unexamined, but a small number of additional ideas could improve the impact of the Flow platform. In the near term, the integration of app-driven bike-share programs into a connected shared parking plan could allow a hub and spoke model for transportation, increasing the proximity span of a single shared parking lot. In the longer term, however, self-driving cars could potentially revolutionize urban environments, particularly if they prioritize sharing over personal ownership. Sidewalk Labs can use digital technology to help facilitate this transition, bridging the gap through incrementally more involved shared services such as ride shares, in conjunction to existing parking infrastructure.
 Daniel L. Doctoroff. 2016. It’s time for urbanists and technologists to start talking – Medium. [ONLINE] Available at: https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/it-s-time-for-urbanists-and-technologists-to-start-talking-df1b57abfbd1#.2qm6qli9m. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 Sidewalk Labs. 2016. Dan Doctoroff and Google Announce Sidewalk Labs. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dan-doctoroff-and-google-announce-sidewalk-labs-300097255.html. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 Dougherty, C, 2016. Cities to Untangle Traffic Snarls, With Help From Alphabet Unit. The New York Times, 17 March 2016. B4.
 Flow. 2016. Flow – a Sidewalk Labs company. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.flowmobility.io/. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 J. Karlin-Resnick, R. Weinberger, 2015. Parking in Mixed-Use U.S. Districts: Oversupplied No Matter How You Slice the Pie. The Journal of the Transportation Research Board, Vol. 2537, pp. 177–184.
 Chester, M., 2015. Parking Infrastructure: A Constraint on or Opportunity for Urban Redevelopment? A Study of Los Angeles County Parking Supply and Growth. Journal of the American Planning Association, Volume 81, pp. 268-286.
 CityLab. 2016. How Parking Conquered Los Angeles, in 14 Facts, Maps, and Figures – CityLab. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2015/12/parking-los-angeles-maps-study/418593/. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 Donald Shoup. 2016. Gone Parking – The New York Times. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/29/opinion/29shoup.html. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 Schaller Consulting, 2006. Curbing Cars: Shopping, Parking and Pedestrian Space in SoHo. Transportation Alternatives.
 Willa Ng. 2016. Circling for parking is terrible for cities. Let’s put an end to it. – Medium. [ONLINE] Available at: https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/circling-for-parking-is-terrible-for-cities-lets-put-an-end-to-it-48c51921b776#.fmkn8nqfh. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
 Willa Ng. 2016. How ‘shared parking’ can improve city life – Sidewalk Talk – Medium. [ONLINE] Available at: https://medium.com/sidewalk-talk/how-shared-parking-can-improve-city-life-3f4ce1c83dd9#.w70mhln4a. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
Student comments on Sidewalk Labs: The Urban Parking Conundrum and its Digital Solutions
Great post, TOMphia! I love this idea of aggregating parking spaces across multiple owners, public and private—it’s a more complete solution than what we discussed previously with dynamic pricing for just the most valuable city-owned on-street spots. The challenge in putting this together, as with many collective action problems, is aligning the incentives between all the players, as well as actually doing the work of negotiating the contracts with the private landholders one-by-one. That’s possible to do (telecom companies have to go through a similar process as they negotiate entry terms into buildings with individual landlords), but takes time. Aligning the incentives could be particularly difficult, though. Businesses that own free parking lots would be reluctant to charge for them during business hours, which would be a likely necessity if they are aggregating supply across all spaces in an area. There are solutions (such as businesses using new parking revenues to pay for their customers’ or employees’ parking), but working out the details would be a fascinating challenge.
Thanks for the great post! Another way to approach solving the urban parking issue is to use an uber like service to match drivers to chauffeurs that park the car for the driver. Luxe is a startup aimed at just doing that – drivers use an app that allows them to call an chauffeur in advance, and using the GPS information, the chauffeurs meets the driver at a destination (say a restaurant), and takes the car from them. Then these chauffeurs (Luxe contractors) park the cars in set parking garages that partner with Luxe. 15 minutes before the driver is ready to leave the restaurant, he would then call the chauffeur to pick up the car and meet him at the restaurant. Similar to the Sidewalk Labs’ projects, services like Luxe are aimed at increasing the utilization at existing parking spaces.
Companies like Sidewalk Labs indeed show that urban planning and disruptive startups need not work against each other. There is plenty of scope for collaboration as you have pointed out for the parking problem. Do you think that this same model could be extended to other areas of urban planning and development? Are there synergies and similarity of skills to be leveraged in areas like housing development, infrastructure, public transport, and affordable housing?