This post is re-published from my new blog site Better Urban Planning that features news and opinions on urban issues.
Traffic congestion and experiencing gridlock is an issue every densely populated city faces, not just Toronto. I talked about how taking my car was a better alternative then taking public transit in my Toronto – The Gridlock City Part 1 post. In Part 2, I talked about how poor urban planning, lack of government funding and how special interests contribute to the $200 billion that Toronto and other municipalities needs to repair and upgrade their existing road and public transit infrastructures. In this post I’ll talk about some possible solutions to ease congestion and gridlock in Toronto.
Toronto has been classified as a world class city but it hasn’t kept up with the aging infrastructure to sustain its exceptional growth. Urban regions around Toronto known as the Great Toronto Area (GTA) – which is currently expanded to include Hamilton (GTHA) – are struggling to maintain their own infrastructures. This is due to the influx of people purchasing homes outside of Toronto as the average home price in Toronto has reached $1.017 million. Compound that with people driving to work in polycentric business centres along the fringes of Toronto and cities like Brampton and Mississauga. These centres are underserved by public transit. Add in an aging TTC and GO Transit public transit that is underfunded and you have total gridlock, not to mention the degradation of social welfare. In other words, less quality of life in spend more time on family and social recreational activities.
But what are the solutions to fixing gridlock and easing congestion?
There is no way to completely fix and get rid of gridlock. A lot of people believe that building more roads would be one possible solution, but the traffic phenomenon of Induced Demand would lead to expanded roadways back to their original congested levels.
Build it and they will come
This is because the extra lanes would introduce new drivers that would of not originally taken their car. A few examples of induced demand are the $2.8 billion project to widen Houston’s Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, making it the widest freeway in the world. The other example is the $1 billion dollar widening of I-405 in Los Angeles. The commuting times on the Katy Freeway increased 51% after its 2012 opening, while L.A’s I-405 congestion was back it’s original level within 5 months.
One recent solution was to introduce congestion pricing in terms of High-Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane or Stockholm’s’ city zone toll or complete highway tolls like the 407. Now a lot of people would argue that it penalizes the poor or that they already paid enough taxes from fuel and property taxes. I am all for paying a reasonable toll fee. As long as it means a stress free drive, shorter commute times and that the revenue strictly gets recycled back to the maintaining the roads, with the rest going to fund public transit. I am sure many others would agree. You can look at the recommendations that Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission in their summary report (you can view/download the full PDF report here).
Time to Pay the Piper
HOT lanes can replace the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes without building an extra lane and would keep the costs minimal. HOV lanes are often under utilized and actually wreak havoc causing more gridlock because it is placed in the far left lane. Most drivers don’t plan ahead by progressively changing lanes 3 or 4 kms before their exit. If you have ever driven on the QEW between Oakville and Burlington, you will know what I am talking about. During rush hour, traffic comes to a dead stop on all lanes – including the HOV line – before each exit because someone needs to cross 4 lanes 200 metres before their exit. I am not a civil engineer, but HOV lanes should be in the right lane to make traffic flow better.
Jonathan Hall from the University of Toronto provides a very technical explanation on how introducing time-varying toll lanes to half the lanes could gain $1,700 per road user per year in social welfare benefits without hurting any road user. If you include the all the US highways that would translate to $30 billion per year. In a nutshell, it basically explains how everyone benefits from reduced commute times. If drivers are willing to pay for an express ride to commute during peak rush hours, it frees up volume on non-toll lanes for those less fortunate and inflexible work schedules. It benefits those who can’t afford the toll lanes by not having to earlier before peak rush hour. And those that have flexible work schedules have the option to use the toll lines or free lines as volume is decreased during non-peak rush hours…which brings me to my next solution.
Times are Changing
We are in the transition period from the Industrial Age to the Creative Age according to Richard Florida in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Many manufacturing jobs are now outsourced to China and other countries outside North America. The concentration of jobs are in the Professional, Financial and Creative (Communication, Marketing and Information Technology) fields. These types of jobs are not your typical 9 to 5 or 8 to 4 jobs. But companies are still structured for people to work between those hours. More importantly, most of these jobs can be done remotely or what is know as telecommuting.
Governments should provide tax credits for employers to implement more telecommuting incentives. Getting more cars off the road and lessen the over capacity of transit particularly in Toronto. The shift to non-traditional work structure is becoming more evident as more and more millennials are entering the workforce. They prefer non micromanaged work environments and as a bonus, they are not really interested in purchasing cars or SUVs. They prefer taking bikes and living very close to work. The need to widen roads might not be necessary in most urban centres, as volumes of traffic should decrease over time with the generation shift in the workforce. Unfortunately this does not account for barrage of new immigrates settling in urban centres especially in the GTHA.
Meanwhile, some companies such as Manulife, Royal Bank, TD Canada Trust and Telus are reducing their office spaces to cut real estate costs and increasing mobility for their workforce. There has also been an uprise in Shared or Coworking Spaces that provide work spaces at a fraction of the cost it normally costs for an employee working in a downtown office. Even technology is progressing that many IT functions have move to the cloud. There absolutely no need to have employees working in an office.
Needing a Government Hand
Municipalities of sleeper communities should provide incentives for employers to move their offices to their town or city instead of the concentrate area of Toronto downtown core or the industrial pockets of Mississauga and Brampton. This drives their local economy and provides more social welfare benefits.
Provincial and Federal Governments should provide more funding for mass transit to connect major urban centres and many communities. Richard Florida posted an interesting article in The Atlantic back in 2009 about Mega-Regions and High-Speed Rail. He identified major urban corridors and calculated times between them travelling by car and high speed rail will speeds of 155 mph. It is interesting to note that during my research for this post, China was proposing to build and pay for a high speed rail from Beijing to Vancouver and even offer to extended it across Canada. With almost 20,000 km of track laid since it first started offering high speed service, I am left scratching my head as why we in Canada and the US, do not have any high speed train in major urban corridors. Some would say it’s the tight reins that the oil and automative industries have on governments. I would be one of them.
At the time of this post, China stock market has been a rough ride. There is some talk about globalization imploding because of it as China turns its attention on its domestic economy and lowering exports. As currencies around the world plummet, now would be a good time for Canada to start focusing inward also and have a cohesive plan to build local economies with our own borders.
All levels of government need to commit and lock in funding for road infrastructure and public transit. Interest rates are at the lowest level in over the last century. Borrow money and lots of it! The return on investment is regaining lost productivity and getting goods and services moving, thereby employing hundreds of thousands of people for mega projects from which the spin-offs would be enormous.
To summarize, Governments will need to make a tough choice in introducing toll lanes and commuters will have to pay for value added commuting. Businesses will need to embrace changing times and change their mindset in how we work. And most importantly we need firm commitments of funding and careful planning from all levels of government. With all these things in place, we can all increase our quality of life that benefits all of us instead of sitting in traffic or feeling like sardines.