Congestion. Downtown Toronto is congested with pollution-emitting vehicles. Yet, pockets of our city also have other forms of congestion, ones we certainly aren’t as worried about.
Et tu, Toronto? Traffic a problem Caesar couldn’t solve
Options up for consideration at Transportation Futures conference include toll roads monitored by GPS and High Occupancy toll lanes
Anna Mehler Paperny
More than 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar is said to have gotten so fed up with traffic congestion in ancient Rome that he banned all transport vehicles from the city during the day.
The ensuing nocturnal clatter resulting from this “war on the cart,” as Romans took their commute to the city’s narrow nighttime streets, caused mass insomnia and apparently drove Juvenal mad.
Traffic congestion is far from a new problem, or one exclusive to Canada’s largest city, whose overcrowded roads, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, are costing the Canadian economy $3.3-billion a year. Across North America, individual vehicle trips have grown at a rate far outpacing either population growth or new transportation infrastructure for years. When Toronto Mayor David Miller was first elected in 2003, he made addressing the city’s jam-packed roadways a priority – and was the target of a political drubbing for suggesting tolls might be the answer.
This morning in downtown’s Metropolitan Hotel, Transport Futures, a non-partisan think-tank, will host a conference to discuss the options open to planners seeking respite from clogged transportation arteries.
This meeting comes on the heels of an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report released this week that found congestion in Canada’s most populous city costs the country an estimated $3.3-billion annually, and a gauntlet thrown down by the Toronto Board of Trade challenging the city’s mayoral candidates to come up with innovative solutions.
Here are some of the options up for consideration.
The Phantom Tollbooth
Nineteenth-century Torontonians had to stop and pay a fee at toll booths on Kingston Road, and although the endangered species of traditional toll booth is almost extinct, it’s still in common on bridges.
In the meantime, far more fancy incarnations are taking the “free” out of freeway: Toll gates that could be installed on highways around the Toronto area could charge drivers based on anything from their mileage and driving time to their carbon footprints.
Taking the high-tech route
The congestion-pricing system of the future operates like a souped-up Global Positioning System. It’s used in Singapore, the planet’s dean of congestion pricing – the island city-state has been fighting clogged roads since 1975. The latest technology involves transponders installed in each vehicle, and charges drivers based on where they drive, what time of day and for how long. Singapore adjusts its prices depending on how crowded roads are, charging more as vehicles’ average speed slows to a traffic-clogged crawl and dropping it when space frees up.
London and Stockholm, both cities with a clearly demarcated downtown core, charge drivers each time they enter the inner city. While London has a flat rate, the peninsular Swedish capital changes its fees based on time of day – a far superior, nuanced strategy in targeting congestion, argues Bern Grush. Mr. Grush is chief scientist at Skymeter, a Toronto-based company that researches and manufactures this radio-frequency identification for vehicles.
But a toll strategy that cordons off Toronto’s downtown could be a hard political and logistic sell. An ambitious alternative that just received legislative approval in the Netherlands would cover a wide swath – conceivably as much as the entire province of Ontario – so vehicles would be tracked and automatically billed varying prices wherever they went.
High-Occupancy Toll lanes
One more reason to bring your spouse, child or cubicle-buddy along for the ride. Within the next 25 years, Ontario has plans to create 450 kilometres of High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that would be reserved for multi-passenger cars. But many jurisdictions are turning to High-Occupancy Toll lanes and letting solo drivers use them – for a price. Shortly after HOT lanes were set up on a bottleneck stretch of California highway between Orange County and Riverside County, almost half the drivers opted to use the less crowded toll lanes.
Simple equation: You’re less likely to drive your car to work if there’s nowhere to put it once you get there. In many jurisdictions there’s a growing push to lessen the number of parking spots available, or at least to make them more expensive. Copenhagen has been doing just this – taking away a few parking spots every year in an urban-planning version of musical chairs – for decades, says University of Toronto geography professor Paul Hess, and it seems to be working on the congestion-fighting front. That might not go over so well in Hogtown, however, where business owners and landlords are still required to provide a minimum number of parking spots in their establishments.
Transit and cycling
All those wallet-protecting commuters will have to go somewhere. Although some road space is expected to be freed up when drivers take less clogged routes or make their drive in off-hours, improved transit and cycling infrastructure is a vital part of the equation, says University of Toronto urban planning professor Paul Hess: The city needs to act aggressively to beef up its “skeletal” transit system and make the city safe and attractive for would-be cycling commuters – something it has taken other cities decades to accomplish.
But, Prof. Hess noted, “all successful cities face congestion issues.
“If you don’t have congestion, then you’re actually in trouble because people aren’t moving around wanting to do things.”