At the Corner of Gridlock and Unlock

Lily Tomlin did a great character in her film, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life.” The character was Trudy, the bag lady. Her monologue has been repeated by amateurs all over, but I wasn’t able to find Tomlin ever repeating the scene.

(This one’s pretty good.)

The monologue has alternately been dubbed “Standing at the Corner of Walk and Don’t Walk.” It’s that good – it has its own monologue name.

My home city of Pittsburgh, PA, is at its own Walk/Don’t Walk corner right now. We are at a better corner than a schizophrenic, convinced she once worked for a snack dynasty, though. We have an infrastructure problem to solve, and we just might get a whole buncha money to help solve it, and the technical expertise of Google’s mobility program, Sidewalk Labs to help us do it.

What’s at stake?

Well, as Sidewalk sees it, there have been some pretty big revolutions (three, to be precise) in city-building, and those revolutions have come at a high cost. If they can develop a more cost-effective and efficient solution to the sure-to-come fourth revolution, it will be…well…revolutionary.

steam engine

According to Sidewalk Labs, we first moved people around and developed cities thanks to steam. (Think locomotives!) That makes perfect sense when you think about Pittsburgh – for crying out loud, we wouldn’t have any trains and train systems if it wasn’t for steel, and steel is the very industrial backbone of Pittsburgh. (Hello? Our football team is even named the Steelers!)

Then came electricity, which granted us lights for interior spaces, which is also a darn good thing for Pittsburgh because with all that coal dust and smoke from the steel mills, we sure needed electric lighting. We even needed it to light the interiors of the steel mills, but probably more importantly the homes of the likes of innovators Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick, who paid for most of the development of the steel industry and the urban development anyway, despite the many controversies surrounding their methods. Remember that guy who said Pittsburgh was like “hell

hell lid
Pittsburgh, 1872

with the lid off?” (For the record, it was James Parton, a writer from Boston, who penned it in 1868 – we still don’t like him.)

So electricity is the second revolution. Then along comes the automobile. That’s a major issue in establishing urban living, to be sure, and if you haven’t seen Pittsburgh’s topography, you can’t possibly appreciate just how revolutionary the automobile is to comfortable urban development.

We are a city built at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, which places us in a basin of sorts, carved by mighty rivers, flanked by mountains which are gorgeous but steep and majestic, necessitating roads that wind, angles that astound. Pittsburgh as a city maintains 700 sets of “City Steps.” These are cool, essential components of a pedestrian infrastructure connecting neighborhoods that are steep, and which would otherwise have impassable vehicular connections street-to-street without winding a mile or more.

The steps are great, but without a car to spirit you over Mt. Washington or across the mighty rivers, you’d be stuck living along the rivers in what we lovingly call “the Golden Triangle,” and that would leave very little land to develop into the beautiful urban spaces we now have as both the North and South Shores.

Instead, our city planners and companies like Sidewalk Labs see a fourth revolution on our vista, and it’s a digital one. We already know that things like crowdsourcing apps (think Tiramisu) can help us transform transportation and smart living (think Wink) can integrate into our daily lives, but can they help our daily commute in ways that truly make us more secure, solve our most pressing problems as a city, make us safer, respect our privacy, and bridge the gap between city of today and city of tomorrow?

It seems like that is what they wish to set out to do, and since Alphabet-style (nee Google) minds and energy levels are behind it, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised that the rate of success feels quite high.

I’m looking at just one idea for now – it’s their notion of Flow.

Sidewalk Labs sets out to wrestle congestion. I’m an avid cyclist. I still harbor a bit of fear in city cycling because, hey, people get killed on bikes. It’s real, and it’s scary. It’s expensive to commute, though, and I love the environment, so if I could be a part of a solution to the rat-race commuter congestion issue, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. Flow analytics with Sidewalk Labs is looking at Pittsburgh as one of the finalists in a 7-city competition to use analytics and messaging to increase efficiency of roads, parking and transit. That is our Walk/Don’t Walk. Can we move from being one of Seven Finalists to being “the one?” Will Pittsburgh get the final rose?

So I’m asking myself, “Hey, as someone who wants to be able to bike around the city better, how will this help me?” And my answer was easy – if there is less congestion in general, I get back and forth safer, and the mobility issue in general is an improved experience. Win-win-win. Drivers and cyclists together are happier people. Mayor Peduto has been working hard to integrate better, safer bike lanes in our city, and although not all of the data is in, the results so far are pretty great. More bike commuters, with happier faces, and very little (if any) added congestion in our downtown corridors.

They have this interactive messaging (this is where the tech writer in me totally geeked out) and dynamic parking (woah) along with dynamic transit (everything green and eco-friendly about me went berserk now.

So here’s the gist of why this tech writer went all off-topic and posted about an urban-development app on a Tech Pub kind of page. This is the sort of thing every city should get behind. This is the kind of Justin Trudeau, Portland-can’t-beat-this, nobody can oppose this idea kind of stuff that makes cities great. This makes life great. Who doesn’t want a smoother commute every day? I mean, unless you already work at home in your pajamas and only have to walk to the grocery store, the dentist and the veterinarian, this seems too good to be true. And when this thing happens to be available near you, do the work. Participate in the data-gathering, because this is not big-brother in the way that some folk might cast a side-eye toward. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Beautiful, blissful, traffic-jam, I found a parking space dreams.


Pittsburgh, 2015 – We are much, much cleaner than Hell now!