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Toronto’s traffic problems are so bad, businesses are willing to pay for solutions

This week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Ontario Chamber of Commerce urged government to raise taxes to support road and rail improvements to help address the region’s crippling traffic problems. The Greater Golden Horseshoe, the most populated region in the country with 8.7 million (2011) people, has struggled with traffic issues for many years and Toronto is now considered one of the most congested cities in North America. In 2013, the C.D. Howe Institute estimated that congestion costs the regional economy $11 million annually. Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority formed in 2006, has a regional plan in place called The Big Move that aims to develop a broader range of transportation choices, but has faced challenges raising funds to implement the plan. Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government, elected June 21st, has promised to invest $29 million through the Moving Ontario Forward plan. But the fact that a group of prominent business people has endorsed higher taxes is indeed news.

In an article by Ian Merringer at the Globe and Mail, Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade said their 12,000 members have “asked them to be bold” in addressing congestion, which they consider their number one issue. Among their suggestions for managing traffic are highway tolls and a fuel tax that could be reinvested in things like transit infrastructure–last year, they recommended a parking space levy and increased regional sales and fuel taxes. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which has 60,000 members, noted that the government might now make faster decisions and “some politically unpopular decisions” to help relieve congestion.

Transportation demand management (TDM) measures can include tools such as fuel taxes reinvested to public transit, cycling trails and paths, programs to encourage non-motorized transportation, and many others. Cycling, for example, is becoming more popular in and cities throughout the region are implementing cycling trails to encourage commuters and those who make short trips to choose their bike instead. Toronto is currently implementing a network of separated cycling paths on many downtown streets, as part of a $300,000 pilot project.

Many transportation experts believe that building new infrastructure, such as public transit and cycling paths, is not enough to change transportation patterns–they must be combined with other TDM measures to make driving less convenient and affordable, such as higher parking fees or carbon taxes. However, these measures face major barriers in implementation in most of North America, where the vast majority of the population is fully entrenched in the car-oriented lifestyle–including urban forms that do not facilitate walking, cycling, or public transit use and popular perceptions of travelling without a car. Fear of injury is also much more of a consideration in North American cities; thanks to a collision involving local councillor and avid cyclist Mary-Margaret McMahon last week, a bill requiring all drivers to maintain a distance of one meter while passing cyclists may be reintroduced in the House of Commons. This step may be key in encouraging more people to cycle. In the Netherlands, as a comparison, the fact that drivers are much more liable for accidents between a motor vehicle and a non-motorized road user makes drivers much more cautious in general, and cyclists do not perceive cars as a threat at all.

A quick glance at the headlines surrounding the recent provincial election shows how politicized the transportation issue has become; for each candidate, their transportation plans were critical in public perception. Municipally, the ill-fated Transit City plan was a key issue in the election of Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 and lingering arguments over the Spadina LRT vs. subway continue to plague this fall’s mayoral candidates. As Chris Selley of the National Post writes, “Toronto is a city of cynical, gridlocked grumps,” where the prevailing argument seems to be that “nothing that we need will ever get built, and anything that does get built will be the wrong thing, and years late and millions or billions over budget.” Citing the recent discussion over the construction of the Union-Pearson Express train, scheduled to be completed in 2015 for the Pan Am Games, Selley points out that many of the arguments are unfounded. For example, the UP Express will be priced between $20-30 but the existing TTC and Airport Rocket bus will still be in place, allowing riders a cheaper option.

The problem seems to be, as Selley points out,

“Torontonians need to decide what they want the city to be…Instead of bitching about the city they want to have, Torontonians need to make the best of what they have, here in reality. The more improvement people see, the more they might get a taste for it – and the more they might be willing to pay for it.”

He writes that even those who want better transit “cling to bizarre small-town sensibilities for dear life: grace periods on parking tickets, parking on major streets as of 9 a.m., buses that stop for every sprinting would-be passenger. They want an airport link that’s cheap, and that stops eight times along the way so it’s fair to everyone, but also lighting fast. They want a city that runs like clockwork without inconveniencing a single person along the way.” It sounds to me like Toronto is ready for some Dutch-style gaming and simulations to help people understand the trade-offs that need to take place in urban planning and decision-making on a strategic level. So to the folks at Deltametropolis, here’s your next international case study!



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