Congestion is only getting worse and it turns out you (yes, you!) are a big part of the problem
The federal Liberal government has spent billions of dollars over the past four years — and promised billions more — to get people and goods moving faster. Has it worked? The Financial Post spoke with experts from industry, academia and government over the past six months about the costs of congestion and how to mitigate its burden on individuals and businesses. In part one of a three-part series, we focus on individual mobility.
You can feel the costs of congestion adding up when inching through a lethargic red sea of brake lights at 4 p.m. on the Friday of a long weekend. It’s palpable, that frustrated, drained, bottled-up, never-gonna-get-where-you-wanna-go feeling.
Maybe you blame the government for inadequate transit or road capacity; maybe you give the side eye to a convoy of seven-seater SUVs with zero passengers; maybe you question why that semi-truck doesn’t travel in the middle of the night.
You probably ignore two facts when complaining about congestion: you (yes, you) are part of the problem, and it’s a good problem to have. But if we follow the adage that what gets measured gets done, the problem is made even worse because no one knows the exact cost of congestion.
Yes, congestion, the delays and irritations we impose on each other when we drive on the roads at the same time, is a daily exercise in impatience that costs Canada’s economy billions of dollars a year in lost time, wasted fuel and delayed deliveries.
Other costs include greenhouse-gas emissions (the transportation sector accounts for 25 per cent of emissions in Canada), accidents and poorer health, since people perpetually stuck in traffic report lower life satisfaction and physical activity.
But congestion is also a sign of economic activity: thriving cities have lots of jobs and that means citizens need to get to them and companies need to move goods around to keep everything humming.
For instance, Toronto is both North America’s fastest-growing city — it expects to add more than 100,000 people per year over the next decade — and Canada’s most congested, depending on who’s measuring (Vancouver and Montreal aren’t far behind or are even ahead in some rankings).
“It’s up to a point, inevitable. A successful city is going to be a congested city,” said Eric Miller, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and director of its Transportation Research Institute.
This paradox means the goal of combating congestion will never be to erase it. But that doesn’t mean the status quo is sustainable, especially if every single newcomer decides to hop into a car during rush hour. It’s simple physics: a lane can only carry so many cars per hour, no matter how many people are trying to use it.
“You can’t accommodate all those people and all those trips,” Miller said. “We can’t build enough roads. We have to be finding alternate ways.”
In most cases, the answer comes down to building mass transit in the right places so people have a viable option to driving, though it’s important to remember that individual mobility has to be addressed in conjunction with the movement of goods, and how disruptive technologies such as automation can affect the issue.
We can’t build enough roads. We have to be finding alternate ways
Eric Miller, University of Toronto civil engineering professor and director of its Transportation Research Institute
These aren’t separate conversations. It’s critical to build capacity across all modes of transportation and to use existing infrastructure more efficiently, said Yvonne Rene de Cotret, Deloitte Canada’s National Public Sector Transportation leader and co-leader of its Future of Mobility practice.
“If we create capacity on our roads by diverting individual passenger traffic onto transit, that could create capacity on roads for handling some of the freight,” she said. “Dealing with congestion around cities is not just about making cities livable for constituents that have to live and work in the region … we’re also dealing with some of the impact the congestion has on the goods movement.”
De Cotret sees an opportunity to take action now, given the “unprecedented” level of agreement across all levels of government that transportation problems must be dealt with since congestion hurts competitiveness.
Even the auto sector knows it’s not business as usual, she said, as research has shown ride sharing and car sharing make car ownership less attractive to younger people (and Statistics Canada data shows they’re also taking transit).
But instead of pitting private cars against public transit, there’s a shift toward making both private and public options part of mobility solutions.
Based on Deloitte’s global research, cities that best advance their transportation goals are ones with a clear vision and alignment between transit operators and policymakers, no matter what level of government.
“The one thing I don’t think we as a nation can afford in our major urban centres today is to get disrupted by misalignment between government constituencies on the fact we have a problem to solve,” de Cotret said.
The problem is as political as it is personal. Canada and North America, in general, are car-centric cultures where people are used to using the roads for “free,” overlooking the infrastructure and maintenance costs that are baked into taxes.
But, most of all, people value time, and driving remains the fastest way to travel for the majority of commuters, according to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census data. On average, it’s 20 minutes faster to travel by car, truck or van to work than it is to hop on public transit.
It takes an average of 24 minutes to drive to work in a private vehicle, versus a 44-minute trip on a crowded bus or subway, so it’s no wonder three-quarters of Canadian commuters grab their car keys. (Obviously, a national average doesn’t reflect anyone’s reality, but it mirrors the city-by-city trends.) Sure, biking or walking is on average 10-15 minutes faster than driving in the biggest cities, but only seven per cent of people commute using active transport.
Yet we also collectively ignore how we personally slow down the road network when we get in a car. It’s easier, after all, to see other cars as the problem as we search for the quickest way to get to work, school or our hometowns on Labour Day weekend.
“Motorists do not perceive themselves as a cause of congestion; motorists perceive themselves as the victims of congestion,” Transport Canada mulled in a 2006 report, the last time the federal government attempted to quantify the nationwide costs of congestion.
Back then, the federal agency pegged the cost of typical day-to-day congestion, unanticipated delays such as accidents or construction, incrementally wasted fuel and greenhouse-gas emissions at a combined $4.4 billion to $6.7 billion. It’s a conservative estimate based on 2002 data.
Various reports since then estimate a $6-billion annual cost to the Greater Toronto Area alone, with that figure expected to balloon to $15 billion by 2031, according to a 2008 Metrolinx report using 2006 data. In 2013, C.D. Howe Institute estimated an additional regional cost of $1.5 to $5 billion, because congestion can prevent people from taking trips that otherwise could have resulted in collaboration or productivity.
Motorists do not perceive themselves as a cause of congestion; motorists perceive themselves as the victims of congestion
Transport Canada in 2006 report
Given the wide range of estimates, existing data on cumulative costs may be unsatisfying, but it’s clear that congestion costs the economy billions of dollars annually, and it’s only going to get worse as the population grows, more people move to the cities and more cars hit the roads.
The number of registered vehicles of every type — cars, buses, motorcycles, trailers and off-road vehicles — has ticked up over the past five years, hitting 35,108,602 in 2018, up 2.3 per cent since 2017 and 7.8 per cent since 2014, according to Statistics Canada.
Commute times are getting longer, according to Statistics Canada. The average Canadian’s one-way commute was 26.2 minutes in 2016, up from 25.4 minutes in 2011. It’s less than a minute each way, yet it adds up to an extra eight minutes a week, or 6.5 hours per year.
Nearly 26.5 million Canadians lived in Census Metropolitan Areas as of July 2018, when the total population was a little more than 37 million. One-third of Canadians (35.7 per cent) live in the three biggest cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Without room to expand highways in a major way in those three city centres, given that they are all situated next to major bodies of water, governments are looking to nudge people onto transit, bikes or sidewalks, options they will choose more often if they’re more convenient and reliable (with the caveat that active transport must also be safe and mostly applies to people who don’t live too far from work).
Governments are also fighting about the costs and placement of rapid transit projects, which can take decades to build. Taxpayers hear repetitive announcements about incremental changes to transit plans that have been in the works for decades, yet nothing seems to get built.
Despite the federal promise in budget 2016 to spend $188 billion on infrastructure over 12 years, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has reported delays in spending, partly due to provinces decreasing investment in jointly funded projects. The $3.4 billion promised for transit in budget 2016 merely trickled out for the first two years, though it is expected to increase in the next year.
Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the government has had to play catch-up after a period of infrastructure underinvestment. To help municipalities with budget shortfalls, Ottawa doubled spending from the gas tax fund in 2018-2019 with a one-time $2.2-billion transfer, he added.
Local consensus is also needed to get the money flowing, Champagne said, adding the federal government is ready to come on board to make a project happen if a city and province are aligned. As an example, he noted the feds in late August announced $1 billion to fund transit improvements in the Greater Toronto Area.
“For once in Canada, the will to invest in better transit is there, the money to invest in better transit is there, and I think the willingness of the citizens and all orders of government is there,” he said. “When we invest in public transit, we also invest in reducing traffic congestion. This is also good news for the environment.”
But until these projects are built, everyone is squeezing onto transportation infrastructure that hasn’t kept up with urban growth while protracted political stalemates continue over what to build where.
Toronto’s subway extension into the northern suburbs in 2017 was the first major addition to the line in 15 years. Montreal has a number of transit projects in the works — including one that received the first loan from the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which last summer announced plans to spend $1.3 billion on the city’s light rail system — but they won’t be ready for a few years at best.
Vancouver, however, is seeing what happens when you increase transit capacity: ridership increased 18.4 per cent from 2015 to 2018. As they say, if you build it, they will come.
The regional transit agency, TransLink, credits continuous increases to its service hours, particularly to its bus service, for the growth. The highest gas prices in Canada and gridlock in a region bordered by rivers, mountains and the Pacific Ocean also factored into people’s decisions to take the bus. Now, parts of the system are overcrowded.
“It’s a good problem to have,” New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté said in an interview this spring.
But congestion remains a roadblock to continued economic growth in the region, said Coté, who also chairs TransLink’s mayors’ council, from the agency’s headquarters overlooking a SkyTrain station, around which five condo and office towers have been built.
TomTom and INRIX, traffic research and analytics firms that use GPS data from millions of miles of road, both found that Vancouver drivers lose more than 100 hours a year to congestion. (Some dispute their methodology, which compares travel time differences between free flow traffic in the middle of the night and rush hour. Critics say free flow shouldn’t be a baseline since some level of congestion is acceptable.)
Coté credits the federal government for renewing the interest in infrastructure spending, but his council is pushing a “cure congestion” campaign in advance of the 2019 federal election. It joins the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in asking for long-term, sustainable transit funding of $3.4 billion per year until 2038, to be allocated to cities based on ridership.
“You’re never going to be able to remove politics … this shifts from one-offs to focus on the broader goal,” Coté said.
Instead of tolling a single highway or bridge, mobility pricing generally charges personal vehicle drivers to enter an entire area, typically the downtown core. This has proven successful in London and Stockholm, although traffic is starting to edge up as people become more willing to pay fees for improved speeds and more ride-sharing vehicles (Uber, Lyft) take to the streets.
Mobility pricing has also been successful in managing congestion in Singapore, which uses an electronic system similar to Ontario’s Highway 407 and charges rates that vary by road and time of day.
Last year, Jakarta, Indonesia, introduced an odd-even policy that only allows licence plates ending in an odd number to travel on certain roads during rush hour on odd days and even-number plates to use them on even days. The TomTom traffic index calculated a drastic eight per cent drop in congestion after the policy’s introduction. It was meant to be a pilot to reduce gridlock for the Asian Games, but the city decided to keep it given the results.
Such mobility pricing schemes, whether they charge a fee or fine, are considered one of the most effective tools to reduce congestion. It’s classic economics: put a cost on behaviour to reduce that behaviour.
Obviously, mobility pricing is not generally popular among drivers, who already pay for their cars, gas, insurance, licences and parking, not to mention taxes that are supposed to help maintain the roads. This makes the idea a political hot potato. Yet experts across Canada and the world consistently bring it up when asked for ways to improve congestion.
There are also questions of fairness.
Canada over the past 100 years has built a society of suburbs that are almost fully dependent on cars. A change of rules — say, charging people to enter the city — would penalize those who moved to the suburbs because they couldn’t afford a home otherwise, said Peter Harrison, a vice-president at CPCS Transcom Ltd., a Toronto-based transportation and infrastructure consulting firm.
Harrison sees three ways to mitigate congestion: build more capacity (if it’ll last a few years), change how existing capacity is allocated using technology (tolls, changing speed limits based on traffic, changing lane directions based on time of day) and, in the future, automation.
He added that governments also need to be more transparent about transit plans so the public isn’t as skeptical of big price tags. Until those plans are turned into reality, he said cities need to be on the lookout for low-cost pilot projects that could have high impact.
As an example, Harrison cited the controversial King Street pilot project in Toronto, where city officials limited car traffic to improve streetcar service. In its first year, weekday streetcar ridership increased to 84,000 from 72,000 as travel time improved by five minutes and reliability skyrocketed. Car travel times slowed by about one minute as vehicle traffic drastically fell. The city budgeted $600,000 for the pilot project and decided to make it permanent despite objections from some local businesses.
“We’re moving people more quickly and reliably,” he said. “For sure, people who liked driving along King Street would pay the price. On balance, the benefits outweighed the costs.”
Quick and relatively cheap experiments such as King Street could be one way to get people moving during the wait for big projects, said Shoshanna Saxe, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto. Bus-only lanes on major routes or bike lanes are other options.
“It’s the kind of thing you can do over a weekend. It’s fast. Do those things,” she said.
Saxe hypothesized that long-term, stable funding could reduce the angst when it comes to getting past the political quagmire surrounding mass transit projects, which ultimately will not solve everything even if the plans are perfect.
As it stands, the scarcity of funds — a single subway stop in Toronto is expected to cost more than the feds plan to spend on transportation infrastructure annually — pits projects against each other instead of allowing municipalities to work on a list of priorities.
Miller, the professor who has researched transportation in Toronto for three decades, said there’s no doubt the political fighting has made congestion worse, even though the problem is one that everyone, no matter their political leanings, wants solved.
“It’s not rocket science. The notion that congestion is a wicked problem is misstating it,” he said. “There really are solutions and we know what they are. The wickedness is how do we pass the politics.”