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Smart infrastructure builds resilient cities

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Yonge Street in Toronto

How do we build a city that works for everyone? Ryerson University’s new Centre for Urban Innovation, which opened in 2019, brings together researchers working in a diverse range of fields to answer exactly that question.

The challenges around infrastructure are great: Growing numbers of autonomous vehicles are coming to our streets, requiring new smart and secure sensors and signals; increasing numbers of cyclists are necessitating changes to car-focused road design; and entirely new neighbourhoods are presenting big planning challenges.

Ryerson is taking the lead on building a future city that moves efficiently and safely.

An urban intersection

The road to autonomous vehicles

Bilal Farooq is making sure Toronto’s autonomous vehicle future works for everyone — especially the people outside the cars.

Working with Ryerson’s Laboratory of Innovations in Transportation, the civil engineering professor has been helping the City of Toronto’s Autonomous Vehicles working group find ways to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and increase the efficiency and safety of city streets with driverless vehicles.

"We have built a very extensive simulation of downtown Toronto in our lab and we try to imagine different services that are exploiting automation, [and] connectivity ... to alleviate problems," he says.

"My research is thinking ahead and trying to ... come up with a future that has more value for society, that is more equitable, more efficient and more livable."

Fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) aren’t here just yet, but increasingly cars are handling things like cruising speed, lane changes, and acceleration and braking by themselves.

In an autonomous vehicle city, Farooq says, travel lanes could be narrower, speeds reduced, and signals re-timed to focus on pedestrians, cyclists and other modes of transportation. AVs might take the form of buses or shuttles that carry people on a fixed route at a steady speed.

Autonomous vehicles will always have to coexist with human drivers. "It will be assumed that autonomous vehicles are following the rules exactly, so they can be exploited by human-driven vehicles," says Farooq.

"All these scenarios we have to think about and try to come up with regulatory tools to make sure that our flow is not disrupted."

Keeping the autonomous vehicle city moving will require vast arrays of sensors — and with those come security and privacy concerns. Farooq is working on a system based on blockchain technology that limits access to individual vehicle and travel data.

"Data is generated by the users and the users should share that value," he says. "This blockchain system that we’re developing is based on these basic principles."

A cyclist commuting in Toronto

Getting in the saddle

The solution to our traffic woes might just have been under our noses all along.

Almost a third of all car trips in the Greater Toronto Area are less than five kilometres in length and are made solo. These are exactly the journeys School of Urban and Regional Planning professor Raktim Mitra believes can be turned into bike rides.

"One of the ways to improve [traffic] conditions is to encourage people to move away from driving and use other alternatives modes," says Mitra. "That is a smarter way to address the congestion problem."

Mitra is the co-director and principal investigator of TransForm Laboratory of Transportation and Land Use Planning, which explores the relationship between the urban built environment, travel behaviour and health. The right type of infrastructure in the right location not only protects existing cyclists, it may also encourage people to consider climbing into the saddle themselves.

"Generally there are cycle tracks that are physically separated bike lanes on the road, then there are painted bike lanes, and then there are off-street paths," he says. "We are trying to understand what works and where."

People who currently drive to and from a railway station on the first and last miles of their commutes are ideal converts to cycling. Although only one per cent of all trips in the GTA are currently made by bicycle (three per cent in the City of Toronto,) the potential for cycling is huge. [11mb]

"If we look at the trips that could be cycled, that’s about a third of the trips that are taken in the region," says Mitra. "We want to create an environment where those who are not biking are encouraged to take up biking."

Aerial view of Toronto harbourfront

A healthy community

Space is a dwindling resource in our cities.

As more and more people settle in urban environments each year, it's increasingly important to build on the land we have left environmentally friendly for communities that can accommodate an expanding population.

"We don't have the luxury of not imagining, designing, and building the most robust and sustainable projects anymore," says Pamela Robinson, an urban planner and professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

"[It's] about making cities for people and for the planet instead of around technology in the form of a car."

One of the areas this is playing out in Toronto is on the East Bayfront, where Google's Sidewalk Labs is working with Waterfront Toronto to develop a new smart neighbourhood called Quayside.

Sidewalk Labs is promising an eco-friendly, mid-rise community with high-tech features like heated walkways and streets that light up different colours depending on their use. A new LRT line could also be part of the proposal.

"It's one of the last pieces of undeveloped land left on the waterfront," says Robinson. It's important planners get the planning and urban design right because it will have a tremendous impact on the future inhabitants' quality of life.

"Any well-designed community in the 21st century has affordable housing, is walkable, and has access to public transit, good parks, and local, healthy food," she says. "Toronto has a long history of tackling complex planning and urban infrastructure challenges and we need to push for new developments to really deliver on the public good."

Ryerson students are well positioned to make a difference in building these kinds of communities. "Our campus is in the heart of the city and we have a large number of researchers who are actively involved in groundbreaking research that makes a difference in the community in which we live and work. City building happens here and it's an exciting opportunity for Ryerson students," says Robinson.

  

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