At 8:35 a.m. inside a Markham broadcasting studio, Lisa Morales pulls a hanging microphone down to her mouth and announces a traffic report for one of the several GTA radio stations she sends updates to.
“If you’re heading eastbound on the Gardiner, it’s a heavy drive from Kipling all the way through to Dufferin. Southbound on the 404-Parkway: jammed up from Finch down to Wynford, all due to normal volume.”
Just another weekday morning.
Last March, the Toronto Board of Trade released a report on the city’s prosperity, which included a global survey of transit and congestion in 19 major cities. Toronto finished last in transit.
According to the report, Torontonians spend an average of 80 minutes commuting, round trip, whether by car or public transit. Commuters in London, New York, and Los Angeles all spend less time in transit.
“I’ve noticed in the past four years that traffic has gotten noticeably worse, and that has to do with overcrowding and overpopulation,” says Morales.
In fact, average weekday vehicle traffic in Toronto has steadily grown over the past two decades.
The Toronto Community Foundation’s “Vital Signs 2010” report revealed that personal vehicle travel in the city grew by 106 percent between 1986 and 2006. During that same period, new road construction in the Toronto region increased by 56 percent.
The average peak traffic speed was reduced by 17 percent between 2001 and 2006 because of increased congestion.
In addition, Vital Signs 2010 indicated between 1986 and 2006, public transit infrastructure grew by 18 percent, while demand increased by 45 percent.
The Toronto Board of Trade estimates that Toronto’s gnarled traffic costs Canada over $5 billion a year, and threatens the city’s long-term viability.
So what to do?
Richard Soberman, an engineering consultant at Trimap Communications, says there are several approaches to dealing with congestion.
“One is to build more roads. Another is to modify the demand for road capacity through various incentive schemes, such as high occupancy vehicle lanes and parking or road pricing. A third is to make transit, walking, and cycling more desirable alternatives to the use of automobiles.”
Soberman adds, “Experience has generally shown that in urbanized areas, attempting to build our way out of congestion through expansion of the road system simply does not work.”
If a new, 20-lane-wide 401 is unlikely, can upgrades to public transit offer a solution?
In the Toronto Board of Trade’s global survey of transit and congestion, Barcelona ranked first of the 19 cities surveyed, with an average round trip commute time of 48 minutes.
Barcelona’s metropolitan population of approximately 5.5 million nearly matches that of the GTA, which stands at 5.6 million, according to the 2006 Census. What are the Catalans doing that we’re not?
Much of Barcelona’s transit success comes from their metro system, made up of 11 lines, which by 2012 will operate on 157 kilometres of track and include 209 stations. Compare that to Toronto’s three subway and one Rapid Transit lines, which run on 68 kilometres of track and contain 69 subway stations and five RT stops.
In 2007, the City of Toronto announced plans for “Transit City”, an integrated network of Light Rail Transit services that would provide enhanced coverage throughout the city. The Transit City plan would see LRT as a surface operation, travelling within protected centre lanes, like those on the Spadina and the new St. Clair West streetcar lines.
The project has stalled amongst funding and planning disputes. According to Soberman, “The government of Canada has and continues to provide limited funding for public transit through a variety of infrastructure programs. In general, these programs involve application-based funding delivered under specially designated criteria and guidelines. Application-based funding means that those providing the funds have the final say in determining whether the investment is worthwhile.”
The Ontario government has dedicated $8.15 billion to Transit City over the next decade. However, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford announced on December 1 that he would follow through on his campaign promise to scrap all Transit City LRT lines.
Ford plans to ask the province to redirect its Transit City funding to extensions of the Sheppard and Bloor-Danforth Subway lines east to Scarborough Town Centre. In his announcement, Ford declared, “The war on the car is over.”
But is it really?
Not so, says V.F. Hurdle, who teaches traffic engineering at U of T.
“Toll roads have worked in quite a lot of places, although it’s not that simple to carry off,” says Hurdle. “The technology needed to monitor the traffic is typically very expensive.”
In those places where toll roads have worked, the word “toll” has been replaced with the term “congestion fee”. Congestion fees involve assigning a price to a road based on the demand for using that road. The goal is to reduce congestion by discouraging traffic from entering designated zones.
In 2003, London, England introduced a congestion fee for motorists entering the city centre. A fee of £8 (about $12) is imposed on each vehicle entering the Congestion Charge Zone on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. The system runs on automatic licence plate number recognition, similar to that of the 407.
When the fee was first implemented, vehicular traffic in London’s city centre fell by 30 percent, and had levelled out to a total 21 percent reduction by 2006. Elsewhere, congestion pricing led to a 45 percent reduction in Singapore’s traffic, and a
15 percent drop in Stockholm.
Critics of congestion fees contend that the fees prevent those with low incomes from driving in the city. London has deflected some of this criticism by channelling all the net revenues from congestion fees back into public transportation. Between 2006 and 2007, London directed $241 million to public transit from congestion fees.
In addition to generating revenue, congestion fees can have other positive spinoffs.
“Making roads more expensive obviously has some impact on automobile use and, over the longer term, should contribute to managing urban sprawl by encouraging individuals to make housing choices that result in shorter commuting distances,” says Soberman.
This past September, the United States National Center for Policy Analysis released a report that named congestion pricing as one of the best solutions for gridlock.
“In a time of tight budgets and increased road demand, traditional methods of funding, such as gas taxes, do not reduce congestion, nor does it meet the need for new road construction and ongoing maintenance,” said H. Sterling Burnett, NCPA senior fellow and co-author of the report, on the other hand.
As Toronto’s morning rush winds down, Morales turns away from the traffic cameras and leans back in her chair.
“Are tolls on existing roads going to save time? I have my doubts. They would have to be really expensive to get people out of their cars,” says Morales.
For now, there is one good thing about Toronto’s gridlock, at least to Morales.
“If I didn’t have much to talk about, I’d be pretty bored at work. I feel kind of guilty about it, but other people’s bad commutes make my day at work more interesting.”