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Monday, March 27, 2023

Waze Lights the Beacons to Untangle Chicago’s Baffling 3-D Street Map

In downtown Chicago, near where the river meets the lake, the city gets a bad case of Escheritis. The streets double—sometimes triple!—into three dimensions, dropping below each other and folding around the basements and sub-basements of skyscrapers, cutting across the river on bridges hanging below other bridges, and eliding into drivable strata in ways that cities generally promise not to do. In Chicago, the multi-level streets of Wacker, Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Ave., and so on are where your GPS signal goes to die, you get lost, and Batman goes to chase the Joker.

Well, the Joker just got a lot easier to find. As of this month, the multi-level streets of Chicago are studded with Waze Beacons, hockey puck-sized squares that stick to the sides of tunnel walls and broadcast an open standard signal via Bluetooth so Waze and other navigation apps can triangulate a position. A Chicago tech company called SpotHero—an app that helps you find a parking space—got tired of having to tech-support its befuddled customers to the garages along the lower roads, bought 500 of the beacons, and gave them to the Chicago Department of Transportation to install. What once was lost has now been found.

I’m making it sound easy. It wasn’t easy. The project started in Boston in 2014, when an engineer named Gil Disatnik got lost. Twice. He was driving in from Logan, dropped into the Central Artery tunnel, and his GPS dropped him. Disatnik picked the wrong exit and came out on the side of the city opposite where he was supposed to be. He turned around and did the same thing in the other direction. If you’ve ever driven in Boston, you will know that this kind of thing is called “driving in Boston.”

When Disatnik joined Waze two years later, he pitched a solution to this tunnel vision: WiFi access points. Except speeding cars don’t latch onto WiFi, it turns out. And GPS needs line-of-sight to satellites, which is the whole problem with tunnels in the first place.

So Disatnik switched to beacons. Google (which bought Waze in 2013) makes beacons that emit a signal format called Eddystone. Any device (not just someone driving with Waze) can locate themselves via the beacons. They each emit specific coordinates, about 10 packets a second. With one beacon every 130 feet or so, the setup costs about $1,100 per mile to install.

Problem solved! Only no. Because there are tunnels, and then there is Chicago. “The tunnels in Boston, though they’re amazing and long and all that stuff, they’re still essentially just simple tunnels,” Disatnik says. They’re basically one-dimensional. You just stick the beacons on the walls. Poof. You’re done in time for a Sam Adams and a clam chowder.

In Chicago, though, your hot dog with sport peppers, pickles, onion, relish, tomato, and celery salt will have to wait. “Normally in a tunnel you just go,” Disatnik says. “In Chicago, you might turn. If you stop at a crossroads, the app might turn a bit too soon, which is something we had to fix.” And when drivers stopped at traffic lights, they might drop the signal altogether.

Oh, and remember how beacons stick to walls? Some stretches of Chicago's lower roads are wide-open, with columns supporting the floor and ceiling. “Wacker Drive going west and north just after Lakeshore is a semi-open road. If you drive on the right, you’re driving on the open part,” Disatnik says. “So you can see some open sky. But the GPS will say you’re on the other side of the river.” Some of the beacons had to go on the roofs, even though that’s suboptimal. Some went on poles.

And beacons, like GPS, aren’t great at registering altitude. So how would they figure out what level you’re on? That came down to beacon-specific identification, and best-guesses by the app. “We’re trying to find a good name for the lowest sections,” Disatnik says. “Some people call them service roads, some people call them ‘lower lower,’ and some people call them ‘sub-lower.” That’s bad for an app that’s trying to give directions.

By and large, though, it works. All those people who’d stop and ask for directions while the Chicago DOT crews were installing the beacons can now hum along the caves of steel without fear. “We were aware of ‘dead zones,’ particularly along Lower Wacker,’” says Gabe Klein, a former head of CDOT and author of Start-Up City. “This seems like a high value, low cost implementation.” As cities increasingly intermingle physical space and data, every moving thing is going to have a co-existing digital avatar moving through the city’s informational space, optimizing traffic across modes from cars to bikes to transit, but also connecting to the wider web. The physical matrix of multi-level streets will connect to the digital one.

SpotHero gets the benefit of customers finding their parking spots, of course, and the city of Chicago reduces traffic friction. “People that depend on their GPS navigation, they can be down there stopping a lane of traffic trying to get their bearings,” says Mike Claffey, a spokesperson for CDOT. “We think it’s a great benefit to Chicago drivers.” And it’s expanding. Pittsburgh already has Waze Beacons installed, and the company says an announcement of another big US city is pending.

To be fair (or maybe unfair), the new, easy-to-navigate labyrinth might be of lesser benefit to die-hard Chicagoans who could rely on their mental maps. “There’s been a few people who’ve been griping that some of these secret passageways will no longer be for locals only,” Claffey says, laughing. “There’s been some carping.”

Don’t despair, Chicago. I got you. Disatnik and the CDOT didn’t instrument all the lower roads. A few segments are still off the map. They would’ve made the routing less efficient for Waze nav, he says. “It’s not that we chose to give bad service to anyone,” Disatnik insists. “It’s a little something for the locals to enjoy.”

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