Friday, November 29, 2013
Traffic congestion in Toronto is a solvable crisis
If our gridlock really had reached the point of utter unacceptability, GTA motorists would by now have switched en masse to alternatives: walking, public transit, car pooling, taxis and Zipcars and other rental vehicles for only occasional use.
The reality, as we know too well, is that we continue to clog GTA roads in a metropolis that has long since ceased to have a distinct “rush hour.” And in which some of the most severe rush-hour conditions occur on Sundays, a day of panicked shopping and other chores with the advent of two-income families and widespread Sunday shopping.
The price we pay for traffic congestion, which ranks among our toughest challenges in a town that in many ways is even more “the city that works” than when it first attained that sobriquet in the 1970s, is in some respects incalculable though obviously enormous. Other factors — and I’ll get to them in a moment — are quantifiable.
Traffic congestion exacts a high price in impeding the work of policing, fire, EMS and other emergency services, whose practitioners speak of a “golden hour” — the need to get to the burning building or the heart-attack victim as rapidly as possible.
The police in my 11 District precinct in Toronto’s west end curse a bottleneck on the principal north-south artery of Keele St. that keeps them from reaching an escalating domestic dispute in time to prevent the worst manifestations of spousal abuse. And pollution generated by vehicles loads the air with toxins, a debilitating condition for Torontonians suffering respiratory ailments.
Traffic congestion is thus a public health crisis.
North America long ago adopted a “just-in-time” economy. Which means the lightening-fast delivery of goods and services in order that businesses can be both adequately in stock (people will not return to a store that’s chronically out of stock) and carry an absolute minimum of costly inventory. When a corner grocer, pharmacist or computer-software design studio notices it is running low on pomegranates, painkillers or semiconductors, in the 21st-century economy it must be able to order and receive those goods on a few hours’ notice.
Well, good luck with that when the GTA’s main thoroughfares and side-streets alike are perpetually clogged. Increasingly, businesses defect from the GTA to less-congested locations, and others rule out a Toronto office or factory in the first place.
Traffic congestion is thus a threat to our economic prosperity.
Chronic gridlock adds significantly to commuter times — minutes and hours you’ll never have again, as they say — effectively lengthening the standard eight-hour workday to 10 hours. And plenty of folks will laugh bitterly at that number, reporting that for them it’s more like 12 or more hours.
Time spent in the motionless car or streetcar stalled by a traffic snarl is “dead time.” Its cumulative effect is stress to the point of debilitation, poor morale and absenteeism in the workplace (yet another drag on the GTA economy), and fatigue on returning home that has us collapsing into bed rather than spending time with loved ones, or even preparing a decent meal — which is a therapeutic exercise, as is a healthy walk before bed.
Traffic congestion is thus a quality-of-life issue.
I said earlier that we are able to quantify aspects of this crisis.
Metrolinx, the umbrella group for confronting GTA traffic congestion, estimates the cost of gridlock at a staggering $6 billion in lost productivity alone. Queen’s Park collects close to $1 billion in fuel taxes, vehicle license fees and other levies — funds not available to the municipalities that actually maintain our roads, bridges and public transit.
The cost of keeping a vehicle on the road, apart from the daunting purchase price of the vehicle itself, varies from the roughly $6,000 a year that I pay as a low-use, low-risk motorist (according to the actuarial tables) for fuel, insurance, repairs and maintenance, and parking and licences, to some $13,000 for higher-risk, high-use motorists. That works out to between 12 per cent and 26 per cent of average Canadian pre-tax per capita income.
These costs are a misallocation of our limited social resources that should be spent on more and better health care, education, affordable housing and daycare spaces, culture and recreation facilities and other contributors to higher quality of life.
How did we get here? Our complacent city and Queen’s Park have chronically underinvested in transportation for generations. We stopped adding to our network of 400 superhighways, the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway so long ago that perhaps one-third of GTA residents weren’t alive when those now congested arteries were built. And on rapid transit, which we expanded by 135 kilometres a decade in the 1960s to the 1980s, we’ve added nothing consequential in recent decades.
Fortunately, congestion is a solvable crisis.
“The Big Move,” a $50-billion megaproject overseen by Metrolinx, and the most ambitious urban transportation upgrading of its kind on the continent, is underway. If properly funded beyond the $16 billion allocated so far, The Big Move promises to cut commuting times by one-third; accommodate 50 per cent more people in the GTA with less gridlock than we currently endure by The Big Move’s targeted 2031 completion, despite a projected 56 per cent increase in the GTA’s population over that period; increase rush-hour service by an upgraded GO Rail; provide six times the GTA’s current number of bike lanes and walking and cycling trails; and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a stunning 50 per cent, reducing both “smog days” and the GTA’s complicity in global warming.
Our social customs are changing. Young people, especially, have for several years been opting for alternatives to motorized vehicles, which, if you fall into the highest-risk category of males aged 16 to 34, can mean an annual $4,000 annual insurance bill. And the rise of social networking, by means of text messaging, Skype and so on, makes motorized-vehicle operation even more of a false luxury.
We are also making liberal use of best practices worldwide. Cities similarly afflicted with gridlock are innovating with everything from a hefty tax to buy a car (hyper-congested Singapore); reduction of inner-city parking space (Hamburg, Copenhagen and elsewhere); and restricted hours for vehicle use in selected districts (Bogota, Rome). There are even more futurist notions afoot, such as the European Union’s call for vehicle-free inner cities by mid-century, and the ambition of some governments to design and build car-free cities from scratch.
The twin impediments to solving gridlock are political resistance to upfront investments that pay long-term dividends; and our own clinging to the overrated personal freedom of mobility that a car still represents to so many of us. Even those are melting away, though, especially as young people who haven’t bought into the heavily marketed “car thing,” and are also the most environmentally conscious generation in history, are increasingly running the show in the GTA, immensely for the better.
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