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Sidewalk Toronto Puts Ride Hailing Before Public Transit

Plans for three subsidized ride-hailing zones and complicated street layout

In its partnership with Waterfront Toronto to build a city “from the internet up” near downtown Toronto, Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has a lot of great ideas, but how they will look in a working city is still a major question. Transportation is among the urban systems that Sidewalk promises to remake in Quayside — the 12-acre (4.9-hectare) site on Toronto’s waterfront that the company has a role in co-planning — but instead of promoting efficient transit, priority is given to ride hailing and driverless cars.

On page 133 of its Request for Proposal (RFP), Sidewalk lays out three scenarios for transportation mode share. One would be forgiven for thinking that the bar on the left represents Toronto’s current mode share, but that’s not the case. That’s the 2011 mode share of auto-dependent Ward 30, which contains much of the Eastern Waterfront where Sidewalk hopes to expand once it has proven itself in Quayside, and with 54 percent of all trips made by automobile and only 30 percent by transit, it does present a negative picture. But it would be misleading to think that represents the whole of Toronto.

Left to right: 2011 mode share of Wards 30 and 28, followed by Sidewalk’s mode share goal (RFP, p. 133)

The second bar is not the city either, but the more transit-reliant Ward 28, where Quayside is located, as of 2011. Sidewalk says that if “best practices” were followed, such as connecting Quayside to existing transit routes, the site would reflect the mode share of the rest of the ward. Finally, the third bar is what Quayside could achieve if Sidewalk is allowed to pursue its vision, and it’s here the company’s priorities become apparent. Transit use would only increase by a single percentage point, while automobile use would be reduced to 15 percent by a larger uptake of walking and cycling (35 percent) and the use of driverless vehicles, ride hailing, and car share services (10 percent).

Without a deeper read, this chart makes it look like Sidewalk’s plan would be a major improvement on the current mobility patterns in the city, but the picture is more mixed. The numbers show that transit use has increased over the past decade, along with walking and cycling, and it would be reasonable to believe that the same applies to Ward 28, meaning the small transit increase predicted by Sidewalk may already be the area’s reality.

Chart from Toronto Star. Data from Statistics Canada.

In 2016, the national census found that 51 percent of trips in Toronto were made by automobile, 37 percent by transit, 8.6 percent on foot, and 4.6 percent on bike. It’s to be expected that residents of Quayside — it being so close to downtown — would be able to have a higher than average rates of walking and cycling, and Sidewalk’s plans in this area are very positive. The company wants to build retractable canopies that will extend when there is inclement weather and heat bike lanes to melt snow.

However, the minimal improvement in the rate of transit use, paired with the large increase in shared automobility services is more concerning, and there are several aspects of Sidewalk’s plan which show how the company is trying to give priority to ride hailing and driverless vehicles, while potentially even hampering the efficiency of transit and the experience of walkers and cyclists. Given that Sidewalk’s sister-company Waymo is one of the leaders in the driverless vehicle space, and it states several times in the RFP that it wants to use those vehicles in Quayside, it is worrying that the company seems to be prioritizing its own technologies from which it will profit instead of transportation that can more efficiently move a greater number of people.

Extending Transit to Quayside

Let’s start with the positive. It’s important to remember that Quayside is a very small site, but Sidewalk hopes that its involvement will lead to a role in the planning of the larger 800-acre (325-hectare) Eastern Waterfront. Most of Sidewalk’s plans revolve not so much around Quayside, but that larger area, and sometimes even the City of Toronto as a whole.

Sidewalk wants the City to add or extend several transit routes to Quayside so it has a good connection to other parts of the city and key infrastructure. The diagram on page 139 of the RFP illustrates these connections.

Proposed transit expansions to Quayside (RFP, p. 139)

Streetcar line 514 would be extended to Quayside, connecting it to the Yonge-University subway line and King Street, where a one-year pilot project is underway giving streetcars and pedestrians priority by restricting vehicles. The company also wants streetcar line 510 Spadina — which it incorrectly labels 501 — to be extended to Quayside for a direct connection to the University of Toronto, and a new streetcar added to connect Quayside to Union Station. Bus 65 would be extended to connect Quayside with Parliament Street and the Bloor-Danforth subway line, and two ferry services would be added to Jack Layton Terminal and Billy Bishop Airport.

Aside from actual transit connections, Sidewalk also proposes working with the city to “apply transit-friendly technology and street management techniques,” referring to the streetlights it’s developing for Quayside which will use computer vision to detect vehicles, transit, cyclists, and pedestrians, making it easier to give priority to the latter three. This is just one example of how Sidewalk is trying to push its own technologies into the fabric of the city, not just in Quayside or the Eastern Waterfront. While its transit plans are not bad — even welcome — there are other changes directed toward promoting driverless vehicles that are worrying.

Complicated Street Layout

As part of its city “built from the internet up,” Sidewalk seeks to abandon the street grid system that has proven to be the best layout not only for transit services, but also for pedestrians and cyclists. Transportation consultant Jarrett Walker argues that cities with a grid pattern “have a huge structural advantage in evolving into a transit metropolis,” yet that’s exactly what Sidewalk wants to move away from.

Left to right: Sidewalk’s representations of a traditional street vs its new street plan (RFP, p. 22)

Sidewalk claims its “system of hierarchical streets” will prioritize pedestrians and allow for more public space. It further claims this cannot be done with traditional streets on a grid because of their width and design, rows of parked cars, and the noise and pollution caused by traffic; yet those aspects of streets are a choice that planners have made and residents have accepted over the course of the last several decades. They are not inherent to the grid system. Streets can change and, in Europe, they are.

The comparison from page 22 of the RFP of what these street designs mean for transportation is particularly telling. The “traditional” map shows walking times from a single transit stop, seemingly illustrating how terrible a five-minute walk would be and leaving out the likely overlap between walking times from that stop and the next and previous stops. The new map, however, has one-minute radii all over the place, symbolizing how the city of the future will not force one to rely on transit stops, but will allow ride hailing and driverless vehicles to drop them off wherever they want. Why do technologists have a such deep hatred of short walks?

But the layout of the streets under this new model is instructive. There is a single straight line running near the left edge, along with a number of pointless right angles that Sidewalk claims are to enhance public space — a claim that seems dubious, at best. Instead, it seems that pedestrians and cyclists would get stuck with a less efficient street layout simply because Sidewalk wants to give an advantage to shared auto services over transit. Responding to a plan to replace the street grid with a series of three-way intersections, Walker wrote that

To abandon the four-way grid for a more choked lattice of three-way intersections seems to be not just bad for transit, but bad for peds and bikes too. Fundamentally, it’s bad for our ability to grasp our city as an entirety, and thus to experience it as available, and as ours.

Sidewalk claims to be designing a city that would work better for people, but its street layout would not deliver. Oddly, the illustrations included in Sidewalk’s RFP refute the whole section about its “hierarchical” street pattern. It show a long, straight street lined with trees to make it more pleasant and with plenty of space for pedestrians and cyclists that is shared with transit and driverless vehicles. Sidewalk needs to make up its mind about what kind of streets it really wants.

A “non-hierarchical” street doesn’t seem to be hindering Sidewalk’s plans in this illustration

A Zone for Ride Hailing

The inefficient street layout isn’t the most transit-hostile idea in the RFP, however. Sidewalk labels large swathes of the city as “shared ride zones” where Quayside residents would get subsidized shared-ride trips instead of taking transit. It calls this aspect of its plan “an environmentally friendly and cost-effective” alternative to creating transit links to the zones because “shared-ride services can often match the bus service in terms of cost and environmental efficiency” — another questionable claim.

Sidewalk Labs’ proposed shared ride zones in Toronto (RFP, p. 143)

Quayside residents might have to transfer from the 514 or 510 streetcar lines or the 65 bus route in order to reach their destinations, but the city has plenty of transit services running through the zones where Sidewalk wants to subsidize ride hailing. Below is the full Toronto Transit Commission map, including subway lines, streetcars, and bus routes, showing it’s hard to argue that the transit services are not there.

TTC map with proposed “shared ride zones” added in green. Map courtesy TTC.

The shared ride zones are simply an added convenience for the well-paid tech workers that will likely flock to Sidewalk’s smart neighborhood — if a 12-acre site can even be called that. There’s also a larger question of how residents in the rest of the city would react to seeing ride-hailing services subsidized exclusively for those in Quayside, though that may be something Sidewalk would welcome. The more pressure to expand subsidizes to shared rides , the better for its parent company Alphabet, which owns Waymo and has investments in Uber and Lyft through GV and CapitalG, respectively.

The plans to have higher rates of walking and cycling in Quayside are a positive move that other areas of the city could look at emulating — though not necessarily by using proprietary systems from Sidewalk. The company’s plans to increase transit use by a single percentage point while subsidizing ride hailing and adopting a street layout that’s hostile to transit, cyclists, and pedestrians, however, is the wrong path forward for a growing and densifying city like Toronto.

Counter to Sidewalk’s claims, ride hailing is nowhere near as efficient as buses and streetcars that can move large numbers of people with a much smaller footprint. Street space is limited, and will only become more so as sidewalks are widened and bike paths are added in more areas. Driverless vehicles and ride hailing may be new technologies, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re the future of urban transportation. Sidewalk is making the wrong choice to promote them at transit’s expense just so it can profit.