Continuing my voyage through The Plans. Note: This Part is pretty involved, so I’m dividing it into several posts.
For a document that is supposed to set out a plan and give us some certainty, I have so, so many Questions.
These are the sections in which I become very aware that I am not a transportation expert. Or a housing expert. Or an environmental scientist (#respect). My expertise is in governance and the digital/knowledge realm.
Beyond being a reminder that I am not qualified to evaluate many of Sidewalk Labs’ specific proposals, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that that nobody is capable of reviewing this document on their own. It highlights that this proposal needs an extensive, deep review by a lot of people.
What I can note is that these sections, which lay out a lot of the detail of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, are kind of hidden from the curious expert. They’re not listed in Volume 1’s Table of Contents, where they are collectively called by the Future Planning Committee-style label “How it Works.”
I’m going to read these sections with an eye to what happens to stick out to me and that I haven’t mentioned elsewhere.
Part 2.1: Mobility (pp. 102-145; not listed in the Table of Contents)
On the much-coveted light rail
Sidewalk Labs wants:
6.5 kilometres of light rail transit proposed in the Waterfront Transit Network Plan, including a new Quayside- Parliament Plaza stop. Beyond the approved plan, Sidewalk Labs further proposes an optional second phase of construction to add light rail infrastructure to the area north of the Keating Channel to serve future development. These expanded plans can be pursued at a total estimated cost of approximately $1.2 billion (roughly $1.3 billion if the optional Sidewalk Labs link were included).
How it should be financed:
a future charge on real estate development and borrow in the present against that stream of funds to pay for part of the cost of construction of the transit system.
This approach is designed to operate safely and effectively in existing cities with traditional vehicles, however, it reaches its peak potential in a world of self-driving vehicles that can be programmed to follow traffic rules, be routed by a mobility management system, and defer to pedestrians. (p. 118)
Questions: This is yet another example of selling the best possible scenario, with no contingency for a technology (self-driving cars) not working out. The full viability of Sidewalk Labs’ plan will depend on circumstances beyond its control, namely, the replacement of all cars with centrally run, self-driving cars. This would require revamping the country’s entire transportation system to allow self-driving cars to work.
So, what happens if this tech doesn’t work out? Also, and more importantly, what bureaucracy is going to be responsible for monitoring these algorithms to ensure that they’re properly prioritizing the right things (e.g., pedestrians, transit vehicles)?
And, who will decide what these priorities will be? Right now, the politics – and the bureaucracy required to make these decisions – is invisible in this proposal. Accounting for them would both complicate and make more expensive this proposal.
On “dynamic curbs”
Sidewalk Labs’ is very big on these dynamic curbs, which is primarily a zoning innovation, turning part of a road – three metres in its drawings (p. 121) – into spots for “programming like outdoor cafés or pop-up shops (p. 124).
2035: Year of the self-driving car
It’s probably worth paying attention to how much of Sidewalk Labs’ promised deliverables are driven by the expectation that self-driving cars will work out, and also that self-driving cars, and not public transit, are the future.
There are two big issues with this prediction. First, what happens to Sidewalk Labs’ promised outcomes if this tech doesn’t work out? They need to account for this.
Second, planning is destiny. By planning for a world in which self-driving cars dominate, we are also planning to relatively minimize the role of public transit. This is a decision that should be opened up for debate. Its inclusion here highlights yet again the scope of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, touching as it does on any number of political issues while ignoring their political nature.
It’s also yet another indicator that the issues it raises are far too big for this project, and certainly for the Waterfront Toronto consultation process. Waterfront Toronto isn’t approving a development; it’s approving a complete overhaul of almost every single regulation and policy governing life in a Toronto community, effectively outsourcing decisions about what these rules should be to a private, for-profit corporation.
Oh, and it’s really not a good idea to base your plans on something that might happen fifteen or more years down the road. And yet here we are.
“Real-time” mobility systems (p. 130)
As previously noted, Sidewalk Labs places a high priority on moment-to-moment responsiveness of streets to how they are being used (which of course will require that everything be surveilled at every moment).
- How problematic (and provide evidence) is our current set-up, in which some people can cross the street at a slower or faster rate than others (an actual example Sidewalk Labs is using to justify pervasive surveillance and a multi-million-dollar spending project)? Would another, less-expensive, and less-intrusive system, work better, such as larger fines for cars blowing red lights or vehicle restrictions?
- Is there something to be said for constancy, for being able to come to a neighbourhood and know that the roads and walkways will always be set up in the same way?
“Modular pavement” (p. 131)
- What are the drawbacks to this technology compared with currently existing materials?
- Would Sidewalk Labs’ “pavement solution” be proprietary? What would the maintenance costs look like?
(Again, answers to questions like this are the type of details I would hope a serious plan would include. Instead, we get promises and pretty drawings.)
Underground delivery and logistics hub (pp. 134-135)
“Quick and reliable deliveries are essential to urban living, especially for residents who do not own cars.” (p. 134) This is just correct. As a non-car-owning Toronto resident in the pre-Amazon era, I know that they’re a convenience, a luxury, not a necessity. This is a sales line.
22 accessibility principles (pp. 136-142)
This is the first section in which Sidewalk Labs makes a connection between community consultations and outcomes (and even here self-driving cars feature prominently (p. 140). And of course pretty much everything presented here is aspirational vapourware. There is no actual plan to deliver, just to explore.
In almost every other area of this report, it’s pretty clear that Sidewalk Labs sees the Eastern Waterfront as a playground for testing its own ideas.
The other exception where they say they have listened to the community is regarding data governance. Their response, however, was less-than-neighbourly, indicating that they want to get compensated for their heavily qualified commitment not to exploit data generated by this project.
And here’s something that I know nothing about, and may by nothing, but it’s interesting that it’s not mentioned in this report: Sidewalk Labs wants to do a lot of underground digging to make these parking garages and accessible garbage and package-delivery tubes work. What would be the effect of hollowing out the entire underground in this area?
Part 2.2: Public Realm (pp. 146-167; not listed in the Table of Contents)
Coulda, woulda, shoulda II
I don’t have anything insightful to contribute in this section, so I’ll take this opportunity to note that the world “could” appears 380 times in this 524-page (including soooo many pages that are either blank or have no substantive information on them) volume. This is very much a vision of what “could” be done, not what “will” be done.
More new bureaucracy: The Open Space Alliance
Oh, here’s something – another new form of bureaucracy:
In Quayside, a proposed new non-profit entity called the Open Space Alliance would have a robust programming budget to support ongoing community arts programs, design competitions, and residencies for local and international artists and technologists. (p. 156)
Dr. Natasha Tusikov addresses the Open Space Alliance in her guest post on all the agencies Sidewalk Labs wants to create. For now, I’ll note that this description severely undersells an agency that, as Sidewalk Labs describes it elsewhere in this plan, would have to deal with everything from programming to maintenance and stormwaters, and who knows what else. Also, part of its budget would be taken from existing City of Toronto programs. Also, it would be a public-private partnership (why would this be necessary). Basically, it would be a Department of Homeland Security-style behemoth: everything under one roof.
Questions: Was the City consulted about this proposal? What did they think of it?
“Building Raincoats” (p. 161)
More questions: What are the maintenance costs going to be like? Won’t these “raincoats” increase one’s separation from the overall environment? And how big a problem are the elements for people walking in Quayside? This is the cost-benefit question (the cost of the improvement versus the benefit it provides, compared with the status quo) that is entirely absent from this proposal.
Benefits from modular spaces?
Sidewalk Labs claims that “changing market forces — from online shopping to rising construction costs — and rigidly sized storefronts are limiting the variety of tenants who can survive.”
What is the relative importance of each of these factors?
How can modular spaces compete with online shopping?
Is a 30-business survey (p. 166) sufficient to support their findings/proposals?
More new bureaucracy: Seed Space
A proposed digital leasing service, Seed Space, would show all available spaces, possible configurations and fit-out options, leasing durations and terms, and potential matches for co-tenancy.
Who would run this Seed Space? Would it be a monopoly? Would it be a public entity? How would it be funded?
The lower floors of Quayside would be zoned for retail, food and beverage; production; office space and social infrastructure space. (p. 165) How does this compare with how Toronto currently regulates in this area?
New types of leases (p. 165)
Opportunities for shorter lease terms (one-month versus traditional 10-year leases) and alternative leasing models (charging tenants a percentage of their sales versus a fixed rent) — all easily accessible through Quayside’s leasing service — would help businesses open and evolve.
Why aren’t these types of leases currently available? What rates would be demanded to provide these shorter leases? How would it be ensured that the rates would be fair to small businesses? Would the rates needed to cover the greater risk this leasing entity would have to assume eat up the benefits of a shorter lease?
That’s it for today. More tomorrow…