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A man rides a bicycle as Milan reallocates road space previously used by cars to new bike lanes and pedestrian pathways on April 30, 2020.

DANIELE MASCOLO/Reuters

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities have had to change relatively quickly.

With fewer cars on the road, some Canadian cities have turned lanes, and even entire streets, over to pedestrians.

For instance, Toronto is planning to limit traffic on more than 57 kilometres of streets to open them to pedestrians and cyclists. To do that, it will take traffic cones, signs, bylaw officers and weeks of planning.

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Vancouver closed roads in Stanley Park and diverted them to cyclists, opening up bike paths on the seawall to pedestrians to allow greater physical distancing. But what if these kinds of transformations could happen regularly, more quickly – and not just during emergencies?

“We often build our cities very static – when conditions change, a space can’t be easily repurposed,” says Alex Ryan, senior vice-president, Partner Solutions with MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. “If you had dynamic streets, you could reallocate spaces easily.”

One way to do that? Smart-city technology, Ryan says.

Smarter cities

What are smart cities? It’s become a catch-all term for technology that lets cities make decisions based on real-time, or at least closer to real-time, data.

Instead of relying on guesswork or out-of-date surveys to make planning decisions – such as designing roads, transit and the electricity grid – cities would be able to get data to see what people are actually doing.

That includes finding out how people get around – where they walk, where they drive and when they take transit.

One way to do that is to put sensors in city infrastructure such as sidewalks and roads. Another is by using signals from people’s cell-phones.

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That information could be tied into infrastructure, so a street, for instance, could be changed quickly to a pedestrian-only street for just a few hours if there’s more foot traffic than usual.

“Imagine you’ve got lights embedded in the pavement that could be programmed so it could be a lane at one point or change to a pedestrian plaza with retail space at another point,” Ryan says.

Back on track

The ability to respond quickly could, in theory, mean faster solutions to problems such as traffic congestion.

For instance, instead of working on a timer, traffic lights could respond to the flow of vehicles on the road.

But there are privacy concerns. If that information – who’s going where – isn’t anonymous, it could potentially be shared with private businesses who’d like to know what you’re up to.

Information that was intended to help cities could instead help companies track your movements and send you targeted ads.

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That was one of the concerns with Sidewalk Labs, a Google affiliate that wanted to build a smart city from the ground up on Toronto’s waterfront.

After it was blocked from expanding beyond its 12-acre site, Sidewalk finally abandoned the project entirely this month, blaming economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

The saga showed that cities need to look at what tech companies can actually offer – and what those companies are getting in return.

“What you really want to be thinking about is who’s in the driver’s seat,” says Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute. “What you really want is a resilient city and a liveable city. The question is: How does tech help you do that?”

Particle accelerator

COVID-19 has been “a particle accelerator” – quickly showing what isn’t working in our cities, Rowe says.

“The question is always ‘what are the needs we have in our cities?’” Rowe says. “And COVID is making them really clear.”

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Tech might have more to offer cities than just tracking where people go. Sensors could also monitor noise and air pollution, for instance, so cities could make better decisions. Potentially, tech can help citizens be part of all those decisions, MaRS’s Ryan says.

It could allow people to vote directly on certain issues, such as closing a street to traffic, instead of basing those decisions on loud opposition from a small group of local businesses. “Barcelona is using smart city technology to improve democratic participation,” Ryan says. “People can engage, online, in the co-design and co-development of their cities without having to wait every four years to vote.”

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