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The Neighbourhood Where Google Plans to Kill the Private Car

Geoff Dembicki

Inside the Internet giant’s plan to build a utopian car-free neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront.

Images via Wikipedia Commons 

The DNA for suburbia was created by the Brooklyn real estate developer William Levitt. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he built two communities named Levittown: one in Long Island, New York, and the other in Pennsylvania. Though it’s hard to imagine now, these towns were seen as technological marvels. Never before had people lived in mass-produced single-family homes on curvilinear streets. “It was a strange new world,” the New York Times later wrote. This world was completely reliant on the private car and fossil fuels. When gas prices spiked in 1979 because of OPEC’s oil embargo, truckers in Pennsylvania’s Levittown rioted and injured 44 policemen.

But the private car isn’t as dominant as it used to be. Rapid advances in self-driving technology, declining costs for lithium-ion batteries, and wide-scale adoption of apps that let you share cars instead of owning could mean “we are approaching the end of the automobile era,” according to former General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz. Since last fall, Google has been attempting to create the DNA for what comes next.

That was when Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, won a competition to develop a neighbourhood called Quayside on Toronto’s waterfront. In a series of public consultations now underway on the project, citizens have heard Sidewalk Labs describe a dense and walkable community covered with data sensors and traversed by electric robot taxis.

Sidewalk claims that it’ll be “the first place in the world where conventional vehicles will be a thing of the past.” The company’s chief policy officer Rit Aggarwala likened it to a 21st Century Levittown. “When [William] Levitt figured out how to mass-produce suburban housing in the late 1940s, he took over the world,” he told me recently in a café on New York’s Upper East Side. Quayside’s aim is “to show the world what’s possible and export those ideas.”

If Google can hasten the demise of the private car, it would accelerate a shift in corporate power already underway at the top of our economy. Since the advent of car-dependant suburbs like Levittown, the world’s most valuable companies have been oil producers like Exxon, Shell, BP, and Chevron. Today the list is dominated by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook. Google’s parent Alphabet alone is worth $763 billion. “The numbers are staggering,” Gerd Leonhard, a Switzerland-based futurist, speaker and author, recently told me. “Tech is basically much bigger and more powerful than oil has ever been.” Google’s vast financial power comes from ruling the digital realm. Quayside gives it a bridge into our physical world.

For now, the 12-acre building site consists mainly of a muddy parking lot with a 1943 Victory Soya Mills silo in the middle. When I visited in April I saw seagulls eating garbage beside the murky water of Lake Ontario. “It’s like the beginning of a crime movie where they pull the body out of the water,” my friend observed.

Sidewalk plans to test technology at the site this summer. If Toronto approves its building plan later this year—talks are already well behind schedule, however—construction may begin in 2020. The first inhabitants could move in two years after. They’ll share the neighbourhood with a network of robots linked by sensors. Pallet-shaped robots will make deliveries in utility tunnels. Self-driving “taxibots” powered by renewable energy will move people through the street. Sidewalk wants to make autonomous transportation so cheap and easy that “in general [people] will not opt for a private automobile,” Aggarwala explained.

It’s less impressive when you consider that Quayside’s area will only be the size of several city blocks. But Sidewalk sees the project as a testing site for ideas and technology that can be exported all over the world. “[We] can go to London, Tokyo, New York, Indianapolis or whatever and say, ‘This works in Toronto,’” Aggarwala predicted.

Big oil producers are increasingly inclined to take claims like that seriously. Shell recently projected that the adoption of self-driving technology in major cities could help cause half of all car sales to go electric by 2030. “It really amounts to a rewiring of the global economy,” I heard Shell executive Mark Gainsborough explain during a lunchtime speech at this year’s BNEF Future of Energy Summit in Manhattan. “Here I am as an oil and gas guy, but you know I have to say there is a big change coming in the energy system,” he said.

This transition is about more than just solar panels and electric cars. It’s about the resource at the center of our society. In car-reliant suburbs like Levittown, the most valuable resource is obviously oil. But in places such as Quayside, where self-driving cars must use artificial intelligence to navigate city streets, it’s data. “Data are to this century what oil was to the last one: a driver of growth and change,” the Economist argues. “Many a battle will be fought over who should own, and benefit from, data.”

As the economic value of data increases, tech companies are racing to lock down new supplies of it. “A good example of the industry jockeying for position is in self-driving cars,” wrote Dan Ciuriak, a senior fellow with the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. Google, Amazon, Tesla, BMW, and Uber are just a few of the companies competing. A single self-driving car may generate 100 gigabytes of data per second—which is equivalent to what Twitter’s 270 million users produce in an entire day. “[Whoever] captures the data will be positioned to become the next superstar firm of the ‘mobility services’ industry,” Ciuriak wrote. With Quayside, Google has the chance to rollout self-driving cars faster than its rivals. “Lots of players are fighting for this market,” Ciuriak told me in an email.

I asked Aggarwala to describe the business model for Quayside. “I don’t think we know yet,” he said. “We don’t expect every aspect of this project to be profitable.” Before working for Sidewalk, Aggarwala created a sustainability plan for New York, which helped cause a 15 percent drop in the city’s carbon emissions. The ethos he brings to Quayside is that positive social change—in the form, say, of electrified vehicles that help fight climate change—can also be profitable: “You’re not trying to push the boulder up the hill, you’ve got capitalism at your back,” he explained.

But some people in Toronto resent that their city will be used to test out ideas whose ultimate goal is making Google wealthier and more powerful. “Sidewalk’s development plan is an R&D lab, not a real community,” John Lorinc wrote on the publication Spacing Toronto. It could allow capitalism to encroach deeper into our lives. Many aspects of public life in Quayside will be tracked by data sensors. Even the park benches have them. “Let’s not sugarcoat what’s being proposed, which is the commodification of living in and moving through urban space,” Lorinc wrote.

Aggarwala doesn’t deny that Quayside’s citizens will be closely monitored. But he argues that anyone living in a city already is. “Most municipal government is about data,” he said. Cities track who uses the subway, where traffic becomes congested, how much garbage is collected. “There is such a level of suspicion of data,” he said. “The fear runs rampant and we lose sight of the upside.” Yet there’s an important distinction between what governments already do and what Google is proposing. Cities ideally collect data on their citizens to improve the public realm. But data collected by Sidewalk Labs becomes profit for a corporation. “This would become where you trip over the line,” said Bianca Wylie, head of the Open Data Institute Toronto. “It’s basically like they’re building a parallel government structure.”

Many of us may someday be living inside that structure. And what brings us there could be Quayside’s self-driving cars. “Power and control over autonomous-vehicle technology is already concentrated in the hands of a small few,” wrote Anna Wiener last November in the New York Times, “If a company like Uber or Alphabet controls the dominant transportation infrastructure you need not live in an intentional community like Quayside to feel as though your city is becoming a company town.”

It’s difficult to know how to feel about all this. “There are so many people when I talk to them that don’t have words to put on their concerns,” Wylie told me. To get some perspective I decided to rent a car one day in April and drive to Levittown, Pennsylvania. On the radio Mark Zuckerberg was testifying to Congress about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “I don’t think the average person likely reads that whole document,” he said about Facebook’s user agreement.

Arriving into Levittown I decided to stop at the Golden Dawn Diner. My table had a view of the “five points” intersection that truckers blockaded in June 1979 when skyrocketing gas prices revealed how precarious their suburban existence was. As I ate a giant slice of apple pie I tried to imagine the scene: 2,000 rioters lighting vans on fire, smashing the post office and throwing rocks at responders. One trucker drove his truck into a pack of policemen.

At a nearby table two elderly women prepared to leave the diner. “Got everything?” one asked. “Everything except my mind,” her friend jokingly replied. They would have been about my age when Levittown was built. They couldn’t have guessed at the time that our society was signing up for decades of car-dependant sprawl and a climate crisis so serious it threatens human existence. I realized in that moment that we would be wise to take Google’s utopian claims about Quayside seriously. We need to know what we’re agreeing to before it’s too late to choose another option.

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