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Sidewalk Labs plan is setting a precedent in its approach to mobility

October 11, 2019

By Jason Schrieber

Putting people at the center of mobility planning flips traditional models on their head

The way we get around has captivated our imagination for centuries. When we think of the future, we imagine flying cars. When we think of the past, we reminisce about steam engine travel. Or in the case of Back to the Future 3, we imagine flying steam engines. One of the most exciting, futuristic projects being talked about now is Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside development on Toronto’s waterfront. The Master Innovation Development Plan for the project was released earlier this summer, and it’s exciting for a lot of reasons. Tall timber buildings promise to increase sustainable construction, while providing a warm, modern aesthetic. A climate-positive energy grid could reduce greenhouse gases while increasing resiliency. An underground freight system has the potential to safely whisk parcels to their destination with autonomous vehicles, reducing road traffic and freeing up the public realm for people.

But I’m most excited about the innovations in mobility, something that my company, Stantec, has proudly worked on as Sidewalk’s innovation partner for infrastructure design and mobility planning.

The vision for Quayside is a community where residents could access all essential daily needs within a 15-minute walk. Credit: Sidewalk Labs.

A precedent-setting approach to mobility

Traditional mobility plans will often focus on the mode rather than the outcome. For example, road and freeway designs try to move more cars faster. Rail line plans focus on the path and the technology and then invite people to get on board.

Cars can be expensive for individual households, and traffic can cause economic consequences. The C.D. Howe Institute estimates that traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto Area costs more than $11 billion a year in lost productivity.

At Quayside, Sidewalk Labs is flipping this on its head. Non-motorized, shared-mobility options are focused on providing as many options as possible for people to get around. The plan aims to set standards ensuring that no matter where you are, you have access to a variety of transport modes within a certain distance:

  • E-scooter within a 2-minute walk
  • Shared bike within a 4-minute walk
  • E-bike within a 6-minute walk
  • Mass transit within a 10-minute walk

These distances factored in existing industry best practices, input from more forward-thinking jurisdictions, and the relative distance traveled for that particular mode. By meeting these standards throughout Quayside and using multiple forms of transit and other shared mobility options, Sidewalk Labs estimates that just 10.7 percent of all trips in Quayside would be made by private cars, far below the 27.2 percent made in comparable neighborhoods. This is accomplished by providing people with options to move around faster, instead of focusing primarily on the car as a method of transportation.

This approach will have a number of benefits, such as making active transportation a part of daily life, enabling an extensive public realm with limited car traffic, and improving mobility options for differently-abled citizens. A variety of design parameters and innovative paving and signalization solutions integrates these modes seamlessly into an improved public realm where they operate together, minimizing conflicts along streets and at intersections, while maximizing safety.

“People-first” street types are designed for different speeds and uses, including public transit, vehicle traffic, cycling, and laneways. All street types meet or exceed accessibility requirements. Credit: Sidewalk Labs.

Future-ready mobility is flexible

Of course, not every trip will be by bike or scooter. The popularity of ridesharing apps has skyrocketed in recent years, and many experts are telling us that we are on the cusp of a shared autonomous vehicle revolution. The Quayside plan takes AVs, taxi bots, microtransit vehicles, and mass transit into account within its basic framework, making it easier for households to meet their mobility needs. Sometimes called ‘Mobility-as-a-Service’, people in Quayside will be able to plan their trip in real-time via integrated apps and information kiosks. Imagine: you can walk out of work, speak your destination into a microphone, and pick the cheapest, most comfortable, fastest, or even rain-protected option that you prefer that day, with your own seat (or scooter, if you so choose) designated and waiting or arriving a short walk away.

Rather than serving as inefficient parking spots for stationary cars, dynamic curbs at Quayside will be terminals for moving people.

The curb will also take on a new role at Quayside. Rather than serving as inefficient parking spots for stationary cars, as in most parts of a city, the curbs at Quayside will be terminals for moving people. By removing on-street parking and prioritizing the movement of people, curbs can serve a purpose for 30-times as many trips. Taking this to the next level is the idea of the ‘dynamic curb’—a flexible zone that adjusts to the needs of the community depending on the time of day. Cities go through cycles during the day and week, and it makes no sense for a curb to remain static through that entire time. During rush hour, why not give more space to buses, and include pick-up/drop-off zones for shared rides? During the evening or on weekends, why not give this space back to an outdoor café, or urban park space? On weekends, create extra bike paths for recreation, or have travel lanes give way to food trucks at lunchtime. This is another way the Quayside plan looks to prioritize the public realm and the people using it.

The philosophy at play here is adaptability by design—by designing with a couple basic tenets in mind, flexibility can be maintained over the long-term:

  • Meet and exceed accessibility guidelines wherever possible. An area that will accommodate a wheelchair will also accommodate a pedestrian, a scooter, or a bicycle.
  • Reducing the use of barriers such as concrete bollards and curbs allows for a flexible and programmable space to change over time. Any spaces can become a spot for a food truck, an outdoor yoga class, or a rideshare platform.

Maximizing the use of the curb has the potential to drastically improve the flow of traffic as city life shifts through the day. Credit: Stantec.

Future-ready mobility is scalable

The mobility design implications in Quayside are scalable in several ways. This would begin by building networks which connect directly to the broader transportation networks of Toronto. Extensions of TTC’s bus routes and light rail lines are baked into the proposal, connecting Quayside from day one into existing neighborhoods. The Lakeshore and Martin Goodman Trails would be expanded through Quayside, while north-south connections would be made with existing and planned cycling infrastructure.

On a planning level, the tools and standards developed here can be applied across the city. Our hope is that once the proof of concept for this type of mobility planning passes the test, it will become the standard the city will look to for other neighborhoods.

Furthermore, this type of mobility planning can certainly be applied to other cities around the globe, as well. With a successful track record, this could become the standard everyone looks to.

What’s next?

Overall, mobility at Quayside is on trend with the increasing desire we are seeing across North America to be part of a smaller, more walkable live-work. People are still flocking back to vibrant downtowns like Toronto, and developments like Quayside are offering the human-scale, urban lifestyle they are seeking.

Advancements in networking and connecting technology are making this more feasible than ever before, with significant cost savings through more efficient use of infrastructure, shared mobility resources, and real-time planning. Of even greater benefit is that this can all be accomplished in a way that will create a better public realm, be more responsive to our individual needs, and ensure better mobility for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities from day one—without complex retrofitting to fix the planning mistakes of the past.

As we look at the opportunity of redeveloping Quayside to Sidewalk Labs’ vision, the world is paying attention. And it should.

This article also appeared in Metro Magazine.

  • Jason  Schrieber

    Jason finds innovative solutions to complex mobility problems, focusing on a balance of private needs and public benefits

    Contact Jason
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