What Toronto’s Quayside project has taught us about smart cities and data

An artist's impression of Sidewalk Lab's Quayside smart-city project in Toronto. Image: Sidewalk Labs.

Toronto’s proposed Quayside community was supposed to be a brag-worthy global showcase for what a smart city, “built from the internet up,” would look like. Instead, the joint partnership between Waterfront Toronto and U.S.-based Sidewalk Labs swiftly got caught in a 12-month, $50m negotiation and consultation process. Those involved in Quayside have been surprised by the concerns raised about the project and the resistance to it.

A public meeting in March — only their second in five months — failed to fill in basic details about the nature of the partnership, including how the for-profit Sidewalk Labs would actually generate income from the project. Perhaps most surprisingly, officials at the meeting revealed that they were still privately negotiating the most fundamental components of their partnership, namely what data would be collected, who would control and own this data, where it would be stored and how it would be used.

The two sides are also negotiating who will control the intellectual property (IP) that comes from a project that has been designed to produce lots of IP.

Coming to terms with a data-driven world

These are not trivial issues. Smart-city infrastructure requires data collection — in fact, data is best conceived of as the fuel that powers smart cities. Without a constant stream of new data, smart cities cannot be as responsive in delivering public services.

In this respect, Quayside is not unique. Infrastructure projects will increasingly include data components, and municipalities and other levels of government — to say nothing of the citizens whose data these projects will collect — will face challenges similar to those currently encountered by Waterfront Toronto.

Government officials and our fellow citizens can learn a great deal about how not to approach such projects by examining Waterfront Toronto’s negotiations with Sidewalk Labs.

We suggest three key principles to consider for future smart city infrastructure projects:


1. In data-intensive projects, data is the whole game

Most of the flat-footedness related to the Quayside project to date can be traced back to Waterfront Toronto’s original request for proposals (RFP). The document treats data instrumentally, focusing on what it can enable rather than treating it as the main product.

There is very little in the RFP that directly references the issue of data control, and the RFP is silent on who will determine what data will be generated. Instead, these and other related issues are left to be determined after the fact, with the RFP requiring only that “the Partner will work closely with Waterfront Toronto to... create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g., Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing)... deployment testbeds and project monitoring... reporting requirements and tools to capture data.”

2. Set your governance policies in advance

Here, we cannot do better than Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute Toronto: “You don’t write policy with a vendor.”

By not knowing — or not thinking through — what it wanted on data and IP governance, Waterfront Toronto has left itself to negotiate a deal that has fundamental implications for privacy and data security, and that may lead to de facto privatisation of formerly public services.

While issues such as privatisation are potentially legitimate policy options, typically they are decided upon before the fact.

3. Focus on data collection, control and use

Everything about data — from the decision to collect it to the way it is used — has a societal impact and therefore requires careful thought. Data-governance policies should, at the very minimum, answer the following questions:

Who controls the decision over what data is generated, its direct and indirect uses, the data itself and the platform through which the data is collected, including access to that platform?

How are decisions about the generation, collection and use of data made?

How will the data be used?

What are the social and economic consequences of these actions?

A national data-governance strategy

Not all of the blame for this situation rests with Waterfront Toronto.

Canada, as others have noted, lacks a data-governance strategy.

As Wylie has remarked in the context of the Quayside project, our entire legislative framework is woefully out of date, and “we haven’t had a national discussion about our data, related public infrastructure, and the degree to which we want big tech influencing our governance and public services”.

Nonetheless, Waterfront Toronto should have set their data-governance demands in advance, and then sought out vendors. Much of the resulting confusion about Quayside can be traced to this initial mistake.

Fortunately, this is a learning opportunity for other governments. Almost everything government does now has a data component. This understanding must be built into their procurement prior to engaging with vendors.

The ConversationBetter yet, governments should create an overarching data governance plan and use that to guide interactions with various stakeholders. The stakes are too high to leave such consequential policies to chance.

Blayne Haggart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brock University and Zachary Spicer, Visiting Researcher, University of Toronto.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, or be extended as far as Quebec City, some 400km away, to replace the existing commuter rail network. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.
Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do will already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. As things now stand, it appears the city’s bus network will be forced to integrate with it, removing redundancy and ensuring that users won’t have much choice but to use it.

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.