Which political candidates are lying when they promise to ease congestion on Toronto’s roads? All of them.
Sitting in traffic sucks. And Statistics Canada tells us that we do a lot of it. The average Toronto auto commuter spends an hour driving to and from work. So it’s no mystery why pretty much all of the mayoral candidates—and the provincial parties, too—are pitching solutions to traffic congestion in the GTA. A new subway relief line, improved bus service, getting streetcars off the roads, introducing higher-tech traffic signals, rebuilding the Gardiner… the list gets longer every day. But the hard truth is that none of these ideas will reduce traffic congestion. At all.
The research is pretty firm on this, and has been for decades. One of the most authoritative recent studies, a 2011 report by University of Toronto economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, summed it up as “the fundamental law of road congestion,” which says that whenever you increase road capacity, either by adding lanes, adding new roads, or improving traffic flow, the space will be filled by additional drivers in less than 10 years. This is true not just of major highways, but of all roads. Not only that, the law suggests that even if you get people out of their cars by increasing transit service, roads will fill up again with more cars in less than a decade.
So, at the risk of repeating myself: nothing being proposed now will have any significant effect on gridlock. It works like this: If you build more roads and traffic starts to flow better, people who didn’t drive on that road will start doing so. If you build a highway to make it easier to commute downtown from Etobicoke, people in Mississauga will quickly realize they can drive in faster, which jams the lanes with traffic. If you widen the highway and engineer the flow of cars to make things faster, more people will realize they can start commuting from Oakville. If you build a subway line to entice people in Etobicoke and Mississauga to use transit, drivers will realize they can now drive in from Hamilton, and fill up the newly free road space very quickly.
Traffic doesn’t change—or if it does, it doesn’t stay changed. No matter what you do, it still grinds along at the same speed. I spoke to Prof. Turner on the phone last week, and clarified the things that do work to alleviate congestion. But they aren’t ones we’re likely to hear from mayoral candidates or those looking for votes at Queen’s Park.
The only thing that has historically worked in practice to reduce congestion is not something anyone’s likely to propose. Since traffic is caused by a city’s prosperity, it can be eliminated by what you could call the “rust belt” approach—have the economy totally tank. If there’s mass unemployment and the office towers downtown become vacant, then congestion will be significantly reduced. But no one wants that.
Another idea that could theoretically work is a command approach, where some people (based on licence plate numbers or postal codes or eye colour or some other criteria) are forbidden to drive on certain days of the week. It seems like a straightforward solution: banning some cars means less traffic, right? But in Mexico City, where a system based on licence plate numbers was implemented to fight pollution, studies have shown it had no real effect. People found all kinds of ways to cheat the system—many bought second cars, most of which were were cheap and actually emitted more pollution—and the congestion and air quality failed to improve. But even if you could enforce it properly, it’s unlikely that such a dictatorial approach would go over well in Toronto, where the electorate is already wary of any policies perceived as a “war on the car.”
Which brings us to the approach Turner thinks would work in Toronto: make drivers pay to use roads through a toll or congestion pricing system. In London, Stockholm, and Singapore, where they have implemented meaningful prices on the roads, Turner says, the evidence shows that congestion actually eased. He suggests that a system where a trip from Bay Street to Hamilton would cost $5 to $6 could have a very significant impact on this city’s traffic level—some people would move closer to where they work (or work closer to where they live), some people would switch to transit, and some people would pay. We’d see fewer cars on the roads.
But as of right now, no prominent politician is willing to support road pricing to fight congestion. Instead, they focus on things we know—or should know—will not work. Which is not to say we shouldn’t build transit and fix traffic lights and do the other things politicians propose. Adding capacity to roads allows more vehicles to travel on them—even if they don’t wind up going any faster—so more people get served. Adding new bike lanes encourages more people to ride, and lets them do so more quickly and safely.
Most significantly, though, transit changes can improve commute times even if they don’t ease gridlock. According to Statistics Canada, the average Toronto transit commuter spends more than an hour and a half getting to and from work. Any express bus, LRT line, subway line, or new GO train service that gets them to work faster cuts that commute and makes their lives better. But we’ll still have just as much traffic on the roads when we’re done.
Congestion relief around the world
The solution: A fee of £10 (about $18.36) per vehicle per day to enter the central commercial district of London (no charge at night, on weekends, or on holidays).
The result: After the scheme was introduced in 2003, motor vehicle traffic in the pricing zone decreased by about 16 per cent.
The solution: A “tax” of between 10 and 60 Krona ($1.67-$10.04), depending on the time of day and the duration of driving, to drive in the central business district.
The result: A study conducted five years after the tax’s 2007 introduction showed a 10 to 15 per cent decline in traffic volume on the busiest roads.
The solution: The world’s first congestion pricing scheme was introduced in 1975, and was extended and made fully electronic in the late 1990s. Charges accrue (roughly $1 to $13 Canadian) depending on routes taken and distance driven in the city centre.
The result: Approximately 65 per cent of commuters now use public transit.
MEXICO CITY AND BOGOTA
The solution: Ban cars on certain days based on licence plate numbers.
The result: In both cities, traffic decreased by up to 20 per cent immediately after the ban was implemented, but in longer-term studies, evidence suggests people found ways to get around it.
The solution: Capping the number of new licence plates issued each month, banning vehicles from outside the city from entering it during rush hours, shortening legal parking hours, banning cars with certain license numbers on certain days.
The result: Massive hours-long traffic jams continue to plague the city, and congestion increased more than six per cent per year since 2010. Late last year officials began publicly considering a congestion charge.