Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has been developing Quayside, a smart neighborhood, for some time now. The development is taking place in Toronto, and its primary goal is to demonstrate the many ways technology can be used to improve the quality of life in cities. If the project is successful, it can be scaled up to other parts of Toronto, such as the entire Eastern Waterfront.
So, what sorts of tech is Sidewalk Labs implementing into Quayside? The company today announced its idea for smart "superblocks," which could reinvent the way we think about streets. In most cities, roads are exclusively for vehicles - pedestrians are limited to sidewalks, which seem to get smaller and smaller as time goes on (and the need for reduced congestion grows).
Sidewalk Labs want to change that by creating four new road types, each tailored for different methods of transportation: Laneways, Accessways, Transitways, and Boulevards. The former two road types will fill out the middle streets and pathways of Quayside, while high-speed Transitways and Boulevards will skirt around the perimeter. The following GIF shows how this dynamic could work:
As you can see, connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) are delegated to the wider Boulevards, making them ideal for people who need to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. For those who want to take their time and soak in their environment, the smaller Laneways and Transitways are ideal.
Breaking down each road type in more detail, we'll start with Laneways - they are designed mostly for pedestrians (and the occasional cyclist), and will be "destinations" unto themselves. These areas will be home to shops, booths, benches and tables, encouraging pedestrians to interact with each other and enjoy their surroundings.
This is what Sidewalk Labs' Laneways could look like.
Accessways are wider than Laneways, and they include cycling regions and "dynamic curbs" that can be used as either additional pedestrian space or vehicle pick-up areas for ride-hailing services. Transitways are similar to accessways, dedicating less space to pedestrians but opening up the road to a broader range of vehicles. In addition to cycling lanes and dynamic curbs, Transitways will house autonomous public transportation lanes in the center.
Boulevards are the largest of the roads and are tailored to "all modes" of transit - including autonomous cars, buses, bicycles, and walking.
An early Boulevard concept image.
These road types will all use smart traffic monitoring tech, as well as special, easily-moved street objects (like plant boxes, benches, and booths) to slightly adjust the layout of each road type based on the needs of residents and the time of day.
Accessways, Transitways, and Boulevards will place a large emphasis on the previously-mentioned CAVs, which will speak to Quayside's traffic monitoring systems. These vehicles will be programmed to follow speed limits, avoid restricted areas (cars won't randomly turn down pedestrian-filled Laneways, for example) and humans - all while operating efficiently in narrow streets.
Sidewalk Labs plans to begin testing these ideas in Quayside sometime in 2020. If the concepts prove successful, the company hopes the "question of whom streets are for" will finally be answered. "The street will once again be a place to stroll, play, and get around safely -- for everyone," Sidewalk Labs states.
That's a pretty ambitious goal, and we'll likely need to see major innovations in the self-driving car industry before it ever becomes practical. Still, Alphabet and the companies under its umbrella have proven themselves more than capable of turning revolutionary ideas into real-world success stories in the past so we won't root against them here.