Montreal·Video

Could an automated bus solve Little Burgundy's food desert problem?

A researcher from UQAM says a driverless bus could help residents reach affordable food more easily.

A researcher from UQAM says a driverless bus could help residents reach affordable food more easily

The lack of grocery stores in the area qualifies it as a food desert — an urban area where it's difficult to buy affordable fresh food. 1:46

The southwest neighbourhood of Little Burgundy is home to many upscale restaurants and boutiques, but there are also sectors where people don't have access to healthy, affordable food.

The lack of grocery stores in the area qualifies it as a food desert — an urban area where it's difficult to buy affordable fresh food.

Last year, researchers at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) started working with the Quartier de l'innovation to look at access to food in Little Burgundy and come up with solutions.

"There's an immense food desert, about 60 to 70 per cent of the territory is a food desert. So that means that people doing their grocery shopping have to travel more than 500 metres on foot," said Benjamin Docquiere, a master of urban studies student at UQAM.

Docquiere spent six months planning a route for a driverless shuttle bus, guided by artificial intelligence, that would drop people off at local grocery stores.

The bus would also bring people to community centres that offer food and economic support, he said.

Each dot represents a large grocery store where people can buy affordable fresh food. (CBC)

Docquiere said an autonomous mini-vehicle that can travel up to 30 km/h is a cheaper way to cover a small area than the alternative of a large bus with a driver.

He added that while there are affordable grocery stores just above the Ville-Marie Expressway, there aren't many places where pedestrians can cross, and carrying heavy groceries back down the hill is a deterrent.

"Groceries, for a single man or woman, are about 12 kilos. Not counting bottled drinks," he said. "So it's a heavy load."

For families, elderly people or those with mobility issues, the challenge is that much greater.

Now the Quartier de l'innovation is asking local residents to fill out a survey, answering questions about how useful this service would be.

A pilot project was supposed to launch this summer but with COVID-19, it was delayed. In the meantime, researchers are hoping to get more feedback to better answer the needs of the community.

With files from Sarah Leavitt

now