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Lower Wacker Drivers Are Getting A Navigation Boost

Recognizing the bane of many a commute, Chicago-based parking app SpotHero and navigation app Waze have teamed up to install GPS beacons along Lower Wacker Drive.

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Chicago-based parking app SpotHero and navigation app Waze are teaming up to make GPS work on Lower Wacker Drive.

Trying to break out of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the Loop is difficult until an escape route jutting out of the road appears: one of the on-ramps along Wacker Drive that dip down to Lower Wacker Drive.

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP, file)

Down there, tens of thousands of daily commuters, cabbies and Uber and Lyft drivers can find a little bit of salvation-- as long as they know where they’re going.

“Suddenly your GPS cuts out and you’re not able to figure out what your next turn is,” said Chicago Deputy Mayor Robert S. Rivkin during an interview with WBEZ’s Lisa Labuz. “And this is not only an inconvenience, but it can be a safety issue,” he said.

For many drivers unfamiliar with Chicago’s three-layer street-cake, a GPS dependent app like Google Maps comes in handy underground. But the current infrastructure often blocks the Wi-Fi or internal cellular broadband signal these apps need to operate.

After the Labor Day weekend, more than 400 beacons will be installed along Lower Wacker to solve that problem. The palm-sized devices will help to keep drivers winding through that five-mile stretch without getting lost. WBEZ’s Lisa Labuz talked to Rivkin about what to know for next week’s commute.

What’s changing so that my GPS works underground now?

There are small beacons placed periodically -- about every 100 feet -- underneath so that there’s coverage for devices using Bluetooth. And it will be seamless. You’ll just have to have your Bluetooth on, and suddenly your navigation app will know where you are. There are a dozen placed way high above and powered by batteries that last about 5 years so you won’t even notice them.

Who’s involved?

We’re very proud of SpotHero. They’re one of the first to come out of our incubator, 1871, for tech companies that have grown to scale. And they’ve partnered with Waze, an Israeli company. Mayor Rahm Emanuel matched them together during his trip to Israel last fall so the two of them are together trying to figure out a way to solve this for Chicago.

Who’s footing the bill for the GPS installation?

SpotHero is paying for the installation, so the City of Chicago isn’t paying for any infrastructure at all. They’ll just be maintaining it.

Next steps?

Have a good Labor Day Weekend -- and when you drive next week, you’ll be able to see where you are underground.

This interview has been edited for brevity and conciseness by Gabrielle Wright.

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