Saturday, November 30, 2013
Toronto Gridlock: The $6 billion (at least) problem
“I like to say that my life has gone to the dogs and my clients. It feels like this is what I’m meant to be doing with my career,” Greenspan said.
She started her company, Urban Dog Walks, about a year ago. Greenspan doesn’t really mind the days with freezing cold and pouring rain. When you’re a professional dog walker, it goes with the territory.
But driving is another story.
To get the dogs out on time for their mid-morning walk, Greenspan starts her day before 8:30 a.m. She checks her email for clients asking for last-minute scheduling changes. She loads up on water and snacks (people and doggie). She gets into her car to pick up the dogs — then she hits the traffic.
“This street will be jammed. Just jammed, I know it,” she says, steeling herself for a long line of cars trying to get westbound on Eglinton Ave. W. near Bathurst St.
Some traffic, particularly in urban areas, is good. It’s a sign of a healthy economy. But it’s no secret that Toronto is suffering from a bad case of congestion.
On an average day, major highways from Durham Region to Hamilton are clogged. Traffic on main streets north, south, east, and west is backed up. GO trains, subways, streetcars and buses are at capacity.
Throw in construction and a traffic accident or two and we’re left at a standstill. Literally. It’s gridlock out there.
Whether you’re in your car or on public transit, it takes longer to get to work, to get home, to get to the gym, the mall, or the kids’ soccer game.
That affects everything from your monthly car insurance bill to your health to the region’s economy. Some consequences are more visible than others. They all add up.
The estimated annual cost of congestion in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area in 2006 was $6 billion. The figure is part of a seminal study on the subject conducted by HDR Corp. and released by Metrolinx in 2008.
“That $6 billion sounds so big and like it’s somebody else’s problem,” said Leslie Woo, vice president of policy, planning and innovation at Metrolinx.
“But that’s money and time we could put into other things to improve our quality of life.”
Here’s how that big number breaks down. The biggest component, $2.2 billion, is delay for vehicle users. This is the estimated value of the work you weren’t doing or the leisure time you weren’t enjoying. The time cost for transit riders is another $337 million.
A trip that would take 20 minutes in free-flow conditions will take 38 minutes during peak travel times, according to the report. The average commuter in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area incurs an excess delay of 11.5 minutes per day and 50 hours per year.
For drivers, the costs add up substantially. Think of all that extra gas you need for your car when you’re moving slowly up the Don Valley Parkway, or wear and tear on your brakes. That alone adds up to about $479 million.
Congestion creates a higher propensity for accidents. That’s because the longer a vehicle is on the road, the greater the risk that it will be involved in a collision, explained Pete Karageorgos, manager, consumer and industry relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
The stop-and-go of gridlock adds to the problem, Karageorgos said. As people try to get to work or get home, and they’re taking longer, they may try to multi-task. “There’s the temptation to use your smartphone and do something that you shouldn’t when you should be keeping your focus on the road and your hands on the wheel.”
The greater number of collisions in high-density areas is one factor that drives up the cost of vehicle insurance.
Insurance premiums are based on the driver’s age and driving record, as well as where he or she lives. Geography is an important factor.
Consider this comparison: A 40-year-old male, married, with a clean driving record, who drives his 2011 Toyota Camry 10 kilometres to work would pay anywhere between $1,856 to $2,791 per year for auto insurance in Toronto. That range drops to $1,677 to $2,050 in Mississauga. But it’s far lower in Orangeville, where premiums would cost from $1,195 to $1,397 annually, according to insurance quotes obtained by Anne Marie Thomas, an insurance expert with Insurancehotline.com
There are other factors at play in large metropolitan areas, such as higher risk of theft and fraud, “but the congestion plays a huge part. It’s a significant fact,” Thomas said.
The Metrolinx report pegs the cost of congestion-related accidents, including medical and police costs, property damage, lost work time, and insurance administration costs, at $256 million.
Then there’s the cost of additional greenhouse gas emissions from idling cars. Extra vehicle emissions cause medical problems and pollution. The study pegs these costs at $29.6 million, though it concedes they are difficult to estimate.
For Toronto Public Health, the connection is clear. In 2007, the agency estimated that traffic is linked to 440 premature deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations every year in Toronto.
“We know that traffic is the largest source of air pollutants in the city of Toronto,” said Ronald MacFarlane, a manager in Healthy Public Policy. “There’s more pollution being created because vehicles are not moving at the optimal speed.”
Add it up and the price tag for commuters is $3.3 billion, according to Metrolinx.
It’s difficult to put a dollar figure on other aspects of cost of congestion, but the effects are damaging, experts say.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that every hour spent in a car on a daily basis is associated with a 6 per cent increase in the likelihood of obesity. Obesity, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
A longer commute stretches your day. The longer your day, the greater the likelihood you will rely on packaged or fast food, skip the exercise, and not get enough rest or leisure time, said Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family.
So there are long-term implications for your health. When you fall ill, it’s more likely to be serious.
“The ripple costs are hard to measure, but we do know there are ripple costs associated with really long days,” Spinks said. “There is a cost on your physical, emotional, and financial health.”
In addition to the cost to commuters, the Metrolinx report estimated that congestion costs the regional economy another $2.7 billion.
The report estimates that congestion costs the region 26,000 in 2006 and resulted in approximately$260 million in increased operating costs for industry. Those include fuel expenses, labour costs, and missed deliveries.
The Toronto region is competing on a global stage with cities such as Chicago or Madrid. A business deciding where to locate a new manufacturing plant or head office may take a pass on a region where it takes too long for employees to get to work or goods to get to market.
“That has a cost to us. That means there’s fewer jobs,” Woo said.
Those are the costs that add up when we’re all stuck sitting in the car or on transit.
But what about when congestion is so bad that you decide to avoid the trip altogether? You opt to take a lower-paying job close to home, or work from home rather than commuting an hour each day. Or you pass on going to a show or taking in a baseball game because you just know the traffic will be horrendous.
There’s an economic cost to that too, Benjamin Dachis, senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute, argued in a ground-breaking report published in July, 2013.
Here’s a simple example: Instead of staying home, you and your family venture downtown for dinner and baseball game. Obviously, the restaurant, the team’s owners and the venue get an economic benefit when you open your wallet to buy tickets and pay the bill for your meal.
But there’s an indirect, intangible benefit to the entire community when there are more baseball fans and restaurant patrons.
That’s known as urban agglomeration. Basically, it’s the benefit of being surrounded by people in strong urban cores. An efficient transit system decreases congestion, and that increases the number of people who can move easily around the region, taking in baseball games, going to restaurants and enjoying the urban-ness that a place like Toronto has to offer.
In other words, there are positive effects when people “created demand for more business, entertainment and cultural opportunities which, in turn, benefit other people,” Dachis wrote in his report.
“When congestion makes urban interactions too costly to pursue, these benefits are foregone, adding significantly to the net costs of congestion.”
Dachis estimates the range of that additional cost to be between $1.5 billion and $5 billion per year in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area.
What’s bigger than the cost of congestion? The cost of doing nothing, experts say.
With no action, the cost of delay to commuters alone would increase to $7.8 billion per year by 2031, according to the HDR report. The hit to the regional economy would balloon to $7.2 billion per year by 2031 from the current estimate of $2.7 billion.
“We do adapt to needing the extra time. We leave home earlier or bypass a shopping trip,” said Linda Weichel, vice-president of Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance. The citizen lobby group is best known for its “What would you do with 32?” campaign that aimed to raise awareness about how an investment in regional transportation would cut average commute times.
“What we’ve been trying to convey is that it doesn’t have to be this way. It could be so much better and it will get worse if we don’t do something about it,”
Metrolinx has developed a $50 billion Big Move plan to expand public transit through the Greater Toronto-Hamilton region. The plan calls for subway extensions and new LRT routes. The first phase, $16 billion, has been funded by all three levels of government.
But the second phase is unfunded. With governments feeling tapped out, Metrolinx has proposed raising the next $34 billion through a hike in the HST, a gas tax, and a commercial parking levy and development fees.
Metrolinx says that depending on how much you drive and where you live, these additional taxes and fees would add $477 a year on average to the cost of living in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area. But it pegs the cost of doing nothing at $1,600 a year on average per household in lost productivity.
“While it sounds like a lot to take out of our pockets, the benefits over the short, medium, and long term are even more significant,” Woo said. “The costs if we don’t invest are even more scary.”
Businesses in the Toronto area are desperate for solutions, said Carol Wilding, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Region Board of Trade.
“As we say over and over, it’s time to stop staring at the problem and talking about it and get on with building, but building on a consistent basis.”
But there’s no easy fix here.
For example, the Toronto Industry Network, a lobby group for the manufacturing industry, supports improvements in public transit. But it has concerns about plans for the LRT on Finch Ave. W. The LRT would mean reduced lanes from Dufferin St. to Islington Ave., a stretch used by thousands of trucks each day.
“They want to get people out of their cars, which is important, but freight is not going to go on the subway or on a bicycle,” said Paul Scrivener, the group’s director of external affairs.
The primary reason for the gridlock that Greenspan faces in the Eglinton Ave. and Bathurst St. area is the construction of the Eglinton LTR. Eventually, it will ease congestion. But for now, it’s making the problem worse.
Greenspan has learned to give herself at least 20 minutes to make a 10-minute drive. “My clients all know. I say 15 minute buffer. With traffic, a 30-minute drive can turn into 45 minutes. They understand. We’re all dealing with it together.”
The cost of gas is another issue. Greenspan spends about $220 per week on gas for her pup-mobile, a 2001 Jeep Cherokee. It’s a gas-guzzler, Greenspan admits, but “it’s perfect for this.”
Greenspan is taking on more clients, but has to consider whether she can manage the traffic. Refusing a client is a worse-case scenario, but there are times when it comes to that.
“I have to do the back-end scheduling and logistics to make sure the front end of my company runs properly,” Greenspan said. “I have to switch my route if I know I can’t make it.”
Greenspan swings back and forth from hating the construction to trying to be positive. “Ultimately, anything that can help public transit, I’m all for it,” she said. “But you can’t just drop this everywhere in the city at the same time and not provide any solutions. It’s frustrating.”
Her last walk is in the late afternoon with Dr. Jones, a golden lab, at Bloor St. and Spadina Ave. The nearly 5-kilometre trip from Bathurst and Eglinton can take as long as 30 minutes. Running it could be faster.
On the drive home, when Bloor St. is jammed, she sometimes goes further west and north, only to come back south and east to get home.
“I know it’s silly. It’s a waste of time and it’s bad for the environment,” Greenspan said. “But it’s the fastest way to get past the traffic.”
Please share this