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Future Proofing Canadian Cities

Written by Posted On Monday, 15 May 2017 18:01

Self-driving cars. Automated driverless buses. HOV lanes with hundreds of vehicles speeding down them just one foot apart. Warehouses that are several storeys high, with access to tractor trailers on all levels. Empty parking garages being converted into self- storage facilities.

These are just some of the things that are coming -- and soon -- to Canadian cities, according to speakers at the recent Urban Land Institute Toronto Symposium.

Huge changes like this will happen within the next 10 to 20 years and "most jurisdictions have not thought through these ideas yet, even though we keep developing them," Wes Guckert, president of The Traffic Group in Baltimore, told the gathering. He says changing transportation issues are "not included in 95 per cent" of city's plans.

"Dubai is an oil-rich nation that expects in the next 15 years or so that 25 per cent of their transit will be autonomous." But the vehicles will run on electricity, despite the abundance of oil.

Guckert said, "We as a real estate industry really have to begin to talk about what the future is going to be like, when you can take as many self-driving and 12-passenger vehicles as you want and have them drive back and forth on HOV lanes like an accordion, with one-foot headways between them."

In some cities, "the impact of the new mobility is being felt even without self-driving cars," Guckert said. For example, in Las Vegas, "taxi rides are down 60 per cent, bus rides are down by 15 per cent and parking lot revenues are flat" because of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft. "The Ubers and Lyfts of the world, from a transportation point of view, may result in more congestion, not less."

What are some other significant changes we may see in our cities?

Guckert said that ultimately most people won't own their own cars. "You'll untether the car from the driver," he said. "The car doesn't have to drive you somewhere and sit there all day in a suburban parking lot." Instead it will drive itself to pick up someone else and take them to work or on a shopping trip.

With electric vehicles replacing gasoline-powered cars and trucks, gas stations may become obsolete, or they may be transitioned into charging stations. On-street parking will be eliminated so there are more places for rider pick-ups and drop-offs.

Parking garages are already being built with an eye to the future, says Guckert. Instead of building garages with eight to 10-foot height clearances, some parking structures are getting 18-foot clearances on the first floor. In future these spaces can be redeveloped to house retail or self-storage spaces.

Self-driving cars will also be able to park more efficiently than humans, allowing for parking spaces to be as little as seven feet wide, rather than the nine to 10 foot spaces common today. That will create room for more cars or for other uses.

In the warehousing industry, there are already stacked warehouses being built that can accommodate tractor trailer units on multiple floors, said Guckert.

Changes will also be needed in the way streets are designed.

"Think about this," he said. Currently, pedestrians step out in front of traffic because they know chances are that cars will stop for them. But if all of the vehicles are self-driving, "you know they are all going to stop. What are we going to do about the geometry of sidewalks and streets for every time a pedestrian walks out into the middle of the road?"

Cities are also not designed for people to be dropped off and picked up all along the streets. John MacKenzie, deputy city manager for the City of Vaughan, a suburb just north of Toronto, spoke about his frustration with developers who refuse to provide enough room for public right of way spaces.

He said if you go to any large condo project on a Friday night, you'll see long lines of Uber drivers trying to pick someone up or drop them off. "I have seen 50 Uber drivers trying to get around a little roundabout that somebody argued with me was too wide. The developers said it met the standards for circulation. But it just doesn't work."

And if there are 50 Uber drivers lined up now, think about what it's going to be like when self-driving cars are added to the mix.

"We have to do more to future proof cities. We're not doing it," said MacKenzie. "We need much more robust transportation management built in."

As a start he pointed to the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, the largest mixed-use development in Canada, which is now under construction. On a 179 hectare site (442 acres) it will include more than 1.5 million square feet of commercial office space, 750,000 square feet of retail space, 12,000 homes, cultural spaces, hotels and entertainment venues. It's expected to house 25,000 residents and be a workplace for 11,000 jobs.

Construction has begun on an intermodal transit hub in the development, which will connect regional bus rapid transit with the Toronto subway system.

Scott Corwin, managing director at Deloitte Consulting, was asked what transportation will look like in 2031.

"In a perfect world, you would have this seamless intermodal mobility system that would allow you to have lots of different choices. It's clean, it's safe, it's fast…it would use clean energy…and it would be very human centred and very friendly."

But as much as cities try to plan for the future, "the unknowables are still tremendous," Corwin said. "A decade ago when people thought about self-driving cars, we thought that we would have to put sensors embedded in the roadway with lasers to read the sensors. The cost of that was unbelievably prohibitive. Who would have imagined that the gang at Google would figure out that you can use mapping and GPS and build a set of algorithms and machine learning to teach the vehicle to travel on open roads without any connectivity from vehicle to vehicle? That was unknowable."

Nonetheless, cities must keep up to speed with the latest developments, said Guckert.

"Uber yourself before you get Kodaked," he said.

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Jim Adair

Jim Adair is editor of REM: Canada's Real Estate Magazine, a business publication for real estate agents and brokers. He has been writing about Canadian real estate, home building and renovation issues for more than 30 years. You can contact Jim at

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