Montreal gets $50 million to improve transportation using bike-sharing and self-driving cars

Passengers disembark from an autonomous bus after taking a short ride in Montreal in May 2017. The driverless vehicle was being featured at a transportation conference..
Passengers disembark from an autonomous bus after taking a short ride in Montreal in May 2017. The driverless vehicle was being featured at a transportation conference. Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP

Montreal is getting $50 million from the federal government as part of the first-ever Smart Cities Challenge.

The city won the program’s top prize, Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced at an event in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon.

Montreal intends to use the funding to improve public transportation by integrating shared autonomous vehicles, bikes and cars into a new platform where all these services can be accessed simultaneously.

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The city plans to improve transit within neighbourhoods with a fleet of shared self-driving cars and other modes of transport, and test new financing and insurance models to pay for and maintain the vehicles. It also wants to set up a central hub to collect data on transport routes and usage.

The city’s proposal emphasized that the use of new technologies would be decided upon collectively, “thus preventing abuse in terms of data collection and usage.”

Three other projects also secured funding. The communities of Nunavut and a joint project from Guelph, Ont. and Wellington County will each receive $10 million, while Bridgewater, N.S. will get $5 million.

More than 200 communities applied to the challenge. The government announced 20 finalists in June 2018. They met with the jury for the first time to present their submissions and receive feedback at the Future Cities Canada Summit in Toronto in November 2018.

Montreal beat Edmonton, Quebec City, the Waterloo region and a joint bid from Vancouver and Surrey for the largest award. The unsuccessful finalists for the $5-million category included the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation from Ontario; the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne in Quebec; the Cree Nation of Eastmain in Quebec; and Yellowknife. There were 10 finalists for the $10-million prizes, including Saskatoon; Richmond, B.C.; and a joint entry from Fredericton and nearby St. Mary’s First Nation.

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While the cities’ plans focused on the local context, the jury was looking for projects that could be “copycatted” elsewhere in Canada, chair Mark Romoff told The Logic in November 2018. Marco Mendicino, Champagne’s parliamentary secretary, said that’s also a focus for the government: “Our hope is that some of the solutions will be scalable and transferable and replicable right across the country.”

Montreal’s project also includes setting up a cloud-based platform to collect data on food access and manage produce sales and distribution, as well as establishing a greenhouse to test new crop yield-enhancing technology.

The Nunavut communities’ bid aims to address the risk of suicide in the territory—which is 10 times the national average—by setting up peer-support networks and educational resources online. The project includes creating a digital literacy curriculum in Inuktitut, developing mobile applications and setting up mental health services like digital art therapy.

“It [Nunavut] is an area that falls through the cracks, and it’s a pretty huge problem,” said Brian Fleming, executive director of the Nunavut Association of Municipalities. “Nunavut is geographically huge, so it’s been a big job trying to coordinate and liaison with all the communities and get their support and make sure they understand the project, so right now I just feel fantastic.”

The joint bid from the City of Guelph and Wellington County aims to establish “Canada’s first technology-enabled Circular Food Economy” by increasing access to affordable and nutritious food and simultaneously reducing food waste by mapping where food is available and produced. To make sense of all this information, the community is looking at using the data-collection platform Fiware, a program that uses data collection and aggregation to accelerate the development of smart-city solutions.

Bridgewater’s bid focused on reducing “energy poverty”: households spending more than 10 per cent of their after-tax income on power. The town is targeting a 20 per cent cut in energy poverty by 2025. It will install energy-monitoring equipment in low-income homes to decide where to invest in new infrastructure. The project aims to reduce the community’s climate impacts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting to clean energy resources.

“The City of Guelph and the County of Wellington have a very long history of working with agriculture. We have a lot of farming and agriculture within the county, and education and innovation and manufacturing sector around agriculture, as well, especially through the University of Guelph,” said Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie.

The winners will have up to five years to implement their plans. The money will be paid out when the cities hit targets that they will set with the government.

While each of the four winning projects is based in a different province or territory, the western provinces were shut out. That’s despite eight of the finalists coming from Alberta, four from British Columbia, three from Manitoba and one from Saskatchewan.

But the communities may have another chance to win funding for their projects. This is the first of three funding rounds for the challenge, first introduced in the 2017 federal budget with funding of $300 million over 11 years. Mendicino said in November 2018 that the government would encourage unsuccessful bidders to resubmit their proposals for future rounds.

The federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners have raised concerns about the smart cities projects’ use of personal information. In a 2018 letter to then-infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi, they urged the government “to ensure that this initiative, in supporting and encouraging innovation, requires project proposals to directly build in privacy protections.”

In November, Romoff told The Logic that cities would need to address questions on data ownership, privacy and accessibility. “Each proposal had to demonstrate that they respected all the privacy terms and conditions that applied in their province or territory,” he said.

With files from Jessica Galang.