Werner's Blog — Opinion, Analysis, Commentary
Traffic congestion in Canada

As a motorist, sitting in traffic congestion is frustrating. Time wasted sitting in a traffic jam is time taken away from your job, your family, from enjoying recreational activities. Yet, urban planning has not kept up with urban growth, and our reliance on the motor vehicle to get us around our cities does not work so well in high-density cities. Public infrastructure has not kept up and has often been stuck in the limbo of insufficient funding and political battles. Last year the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, proposed road tolling for the highways owned by the city, but Ontario's premier Kathleen Wynne just rejected the proposal to toll the Gardiner Express Way and the Don Valley Parkway. The Globe and Mail's Marcus Gee called it an act of political cowardice. Over the next weeks and months my blog will talk about what is ailing urban transportation. Road tolling is one of the options, but it is also hugely unpopular with many suburban motorists who commute into urban centers. Is there a way to make road pricing more palatable to motorists? Could motorists even come to appreciate road pricing if it delivers tangible benefits?

Traffic Congestion, licensed by iStockphoto

Image licensed from iStockphoto.

Road congestion not only causes delays for motorists, but also more pollution, and more traffic accidents. Quality of life in urban communities could be improved if congestion is reduced; but how? And how can solutions avoid setting off a battle between urban and suburban communities, between affluent and less-affluent households, and between motorists and non-motorists? That is a tall order for any public policy debate. Getting serious about traffic does not mean launching a "war on the car", as some pundits would have it (including a former mayor of Toronto). Road tolling can play a useful role in managing traffic, but there is a big gap between opportunistic road tolling and smart road pricing. Haphazard road tolling can actually make things worse: toll a bridge here and a tunnel there, and have a toll on one highway but not another. The result is a reallocation of traffic that is sub-optimal and may worsen some of the worst bottlenecks.

Obviously, the solution to road congestion involves fewer cars on the roads, but this does not need to come at the cost of inferior transportation services. Some motorists see free road use as a right—as existing roads are paid for by our taxes already. That notion falls short of understanding that road use causes negative externalities, and that policy interventions need to be in proportion to these externalities. Congestion, pollution, and accidents are the most important negative externalities. The negative externalities from pollution are best dealt with by a tax on fuels, while the negative externalities from congestion require other interventions. Building more or better public transportation infrastructure requires investments and cooperation from multiple levels of governments and from neighbouring jurisdictions. Smart road pricing requires a careful understanding of road networks and traffic flows, as well as careful thought about how to redistribute revenue from such pricing to avoid social inequity.

But what does congestion actually look like in Canada? How much do motorists get stuck in traffic each day? TomTom, the provider of navigation products and services, publishes an annual ranking of congestion in world cities. Canadian cities are not the worst in the world (Mexico City, Bangkok, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, and Moscow top the list), but we are not the best cities either. In Canada, Vancouver is the most congested city. On average, people spend 34% more time in traffic then what would be feasible if roads were not congested. These travel time increases are much larger during peak morning and afternoon rush hour; in Vancouver 50% in the morning and 65% in the afternoon. The table below shows the numbers for all large Canadian cities with a population in excess of 800,000.

Tomtom Traffic Index 2016 of Wold Cities

City World
Vancouver 36 34% 50% 65%
Toronto 64 28% 48% 60%
Montreal 81 26% 47% 57%
Ottawa 86 26% 43% 58%
Edmonton 115 21% 30% 40%
Calgary 122 19% 28% 39%

Source: TomTom Traffic Index. Notes: 1 increase in overall travel times when compared to a free-flow (uncongested) situation; 2 increase in morning peak travel times when compared to a free-flow situation; 3 increase in afternoon peak travel times when compared to a free-flow situation.

A new study by the Canadian Automobile Association has identified Canada's worst traffic bottlenecks. The CAA reports that "Canada's top 20 most congested traffic bottlenecks may cover just 65 kilometers, but they collectively cost drivers over 11.5 million hours and drain an extra 22 million liters of fuel per year." For example, Vancouver's 1.6-km stretch of Granville Street at Southwest Marine Drive causes 245,000 hours of annual delay to motorists, or an estimated 679,000 liters of fuel, or 1,700 tonnes of additional carbon dioxide emissions. Toronto's 15.3-km stretch of highway 401 between highway 427 and Yonge Street is the number one congestion point, causing 3.2 million(!) total hours of delay and 5.7 million liters of extra fuel. The economic losses due to congestion are formidable. The overall costs are significant. The Metro Vancouver Mayors' Council estimates the economic losses from congestion and excess vehicle crashes at half a billion Dollars.

Further Readings and Sources:

Posted on Saturday, January 28, 2017 at 06:45 — #Transportation
© 2017  Prof. Werner Antweiler, University of British Columbia. Contact me at: werner.antweiler@ubc.ca | valid HTML | Home
[Sauder School of Business] [The University of British Columbia]