On Toronto’s waterfront, where the eastern part of the city meets Lake Ontario, is a patchwork of cement and dirt. It’s home to plumbing and elec- trical supply shops, parking lots, winter boat storage, and a hulking silo built in 1943 to store soybeans—a relic of
the area’s history as a shipping port.
Torontonians describe the site as blighted, underutilized, and
contaminated. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs wants to transform it
into one of the world’s most innovative city neighborhoods. It will,
in the company’s vision, be a place where driverless shuttle buses
replace private cars; tra;c lights track the flow of pedestrians,
bicyclists, and vehicles; robots transport mail and garbage via
underground tunnels; and modular buildings can be expanded
to accommodate growing companies and families.
In the early 2000s, so-called smart cities were all the rage.
Captivated by the idea of urban districts that would use technology to reduce energy consumption and pollution, make transportation more e;cient, and lure a;uent tenants, countries
including China, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates
hired developers to transform large swaths of land into photogenic cities stu;ed with the latest innovations.
All fell short of their lofty ambitions. Sidewalk Labs, which
was founded in 2015 as a subsidiary of Alphabet to develop tech-
nology for alleviating urban problems, believes it can buck the
trend by working closely with the community and tailoring the
technology to local needs. “People have been trying to build the
city of the future for more than 100 years,” says Rit Aggarwala,
the executive in charge of Sidewalk Labs’ urban-systems plan-
ning. “But we really want to tap into [Toronto’s] existing vital-
ity and character.”
The neighborhood, called Quayside, is Sidewalk’s first big
project. It will start life on a 12-acre plot mostly owned by
Waterfront Toronto—a local development agency founded by
Canada’s federal, provincial, and municipal governments—and
is expected to house an estimated 5,000 people. Later development could expand to a neighboring 700-plus-acre parcel of
industrial waterfront and involve tens of thousands of residents.
“All of our thinking and decisions on Quayside are shaped by
the question ‘What do 21st-century technologies enable us to
do better?’” says Aggarwala.
Driverless cars will have a big role. Sidewalk assumes they will
navigate more precisely and obey tra;c laws more consistently
than human drivers, so it wants to put narrower lanes in Quayside
and carve out more room for sidewalks and parks. In theory, using
shared self-driving vehicles will mean that fewer people need to
own cars, saving families a projected $6,000 a year.
Sensing and monitoring public activity accurately and frequently will be key. Running autonomous buses on city streets
requires knowing when to change lights and other signals to give
cyclists and pedestrians priority.
Sidewalk Labs says the sensor information would also support long-term planning. The data would fuel a virtual model of
Quayside, which urban planners could use to test infrastructure
changes quickly, at low cost, and without bothering residents. It
“All of our thinking and
decisions on Quayside are
shaped by the question
‘What do 21st-century
technologies enable us to