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Driving Change

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs proposes mobility nirvana

Imagine, a city where the residents and commuters wouldn't need to own cars.

This article is adapted from the newsletter Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

After 18 months of hard discussions, community engagement and controversy, Sidewalk Labs (a division of Alphabet, aka Google) unveiled its master plan Monday to create a tech-enabled smart city out of an eastern waterfront in Toronto. 

If Sidewalk Labs can overcome the uneasy feeling of Google using a city as a sandbox — in an era when tech companies such as Facebook are increasingly being seen as negligent actors — the organization's blueprint could be one of the most interesting, innovative and sustainable designs for transportation and mobility in the world. 

The plan's overall transportation goal is to design a city where the residents (planned for 4,200) and commuters wouldn't need to own cars. Close to three-quarters of transportation trips would be made with a combination of transit, biking, walking, electric self-driving vehicles and on-demand services such as ride-hailing and shared e-bikes and e-scooters.

Data — who owns it, how it's collected and how it's secured — is proving to be the big sticking point for many urban mobility plans.
Such a mobility-friendly city could save families $4,000 a year on vehicle costs and could create "perhaps the largest climate positive district in North America," said Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff on a media call Monday morning. A big part of the company's sustainability plan will entail constructing 10 buildings made with mass-produced timber that in turn would be created in a planned new local factory (that would also create jobs). 

Sidewalk Labs' vision for the region is to test out various urban digital technologies and then, with approval from government and stakeholders, potentially scale them in another proposed section of the city. This broader "scaling" plan in an area called the Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district could be one of the more controversial parts of the plan put forth Monday. 

Doctoroff gave examples of some mobility tech ideas, including making dynamic curbs and flexible street spaces that can become passenger loading zones or freight zones depending on the time of day. He also mentioned traffic signals that could change based on the age of a pedestrian, so someone walking at a slower pace could be given more time to cross the street. Other mobility ideas include mobility subscription packages, EV car sharing and robust bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. 

While it sounds like a dream scenario for transportation planning, as every transportation planner knows, getting things such as light rail extended to the region are initiatives largely out of control of Sidewalk Labs. That idea would need extensive government approval that Sidewalk Labs doesn't yet have.

The entire plan, of course, is just a proposal. It will go through a rigorous commenting and feedback period, and Sidewalk Labs expects to move forward on some type of concrete plan by the end of this year or early next year. 

Regardless whether Sidewalk Labs is able to move forward on its ambitious plans will depend on how worried communities are around a tech behemoth such as Google being at the core of a city's plans. Chief amongst those concerns will be how Google will collect, store and use the data from all the tech experiments. To alleviate those fears, Sidewalk announced the idea of the creation of an "Urban Data Trust" that would be run by independent third parties and that would make decisions on such data issues. 

Tech companies with similarly ambitious smart city and mobility plans, from cellular carriers to scooter companies, should watch this test case closely to try to discern lessons learned. Data — who owns it, how it's collected and how it's secured — is proving to be the big sticking point for many urban mobility plans.

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