Day breaks over Canada, and across the country, the morning commuter rises, dresses, hops into his car and is transformed into . . . traffic. Immobilizing, enervating, infuriating traffic, glaciers of metal improbably forcing their way down the nation’s roads each morning, only to have to force their way back up the same roads later in the day.
In Halifax, drivers seethe as they inch through the Armdale Rotary. In Montreal, it’s the seemingly hours-long grind along the infamous Autoroute Décarie. Toronto commuters visibly age waiting for something to move on the “Don Valley Parking Lot.” Calgarians have ample time each day to regret taking Deerfoot Trail, while in the Lower Mainland of B.C., drivers debate which is worse: the bottleneck on the Port Mann bridge or the eternal stretches of Highway 1 on either side of it.
We’re not imagining things: traffic really is getting worse. Statistics Canada reports the average time spent commuting to and from work nationwide increased from 54 minutes in 1992 to 63 minutes in 2005. In a year, that adds up to about 32 working days spent sitting in traffic (five more than in 1992). And that’s the average. In Calgary, it’s 66 minutes; in Vancouver, 67; in Toronto and Montreal, it’s now up to nearly 80 minutes a day. For one in four Canadians, the two-way commute takes more than 90 minutes.
In part that’s because people are travelling further to work: commute distances have increased 10 per cent in a decade. But it’s also because everyone’s moving slower: average rush-hour traffic speeds in Toronto, for example, declined by 24 per cent between 1986 and 2006. The result is to make these trips much longer than they need to be: as much as 37 minutes—nearly half—of the average Torontonian’s daily commute is due to traffic delays. In a year, that’s an extra 18 days in the car.
Indeed, for sheer mind-numbing, soul-destroying aggravation, traffic in our largest cities can compete with any in the developed world. A Toronto Board of Trade report earlier this year looked at commuting times in 19 major European and North American cities. Toronto’s ranking? Dead last: worse than New York or London, worse than Los Angeles. But other Canadian cities were scarcely better. Montreal was 18th, Vancouver 14th, Calgary 13th, Halifax 10th.
It’s not just the commute. There is nearly as much traffic at lunchtime today as there was at rush hour a generation ago. Not only are there more cars and trucks on the road—21.4 million registered vehicles, up from 16.6 million in 1992—but we’re using them for more things: driving the kids to sports, where once they would have walked. Total daily trips in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area rose by 56 per cent between 1986 and 2006.
Traffic is slowly strangling our cities. It’s the time wasted in traffic that could have been put to more productive use. It’s the late deliveries, the missed appointments, and the margin of error needed to cover the risks of either. It’s the extra repair costs from all those additional fender-benders. It’s the higher fuel consumption and consequent higher emissions to which stop-and-go traffic gives rise, to say nothing of the added wear and tear on roads, and tires, and engines—and heart muscles: being in heavy traffic triples your risk of a heart attack within an hour, according to German researchers. It’s the measurable drop in property values in areas overtaken by the traffic blight. It’s the noise, and smell, and general unsightliness. And much more besides.
Add it up and the costs are massive, and growing. A 2006 Transport Canada study put the cost of congestion nationwide, taking everyday and “non-recurring” congestion (accidents, road work and so on) together, at as much as $6.7 billion. (Interestingly, measured in congestion costs per vehicle-kilometre, Vancouver can lay claim to having the worst traffic in the country: see chart.) Yet even this is almost certainly an underestimate. The figures are in 2000 dollars, for starters, and traffic has appreciably worsened since the early years of the decade, when the study was conducted. Costs were estimated only in the nine largest urban areas, only at rush hour, only for cars (not trucks or buses), and only included the drivers’ wasted time and excess fuel consumption (and related greenhouse gas emissions).
A more comprehensive estimate, conducted in 2008 for Metrolinx, the agency responsible for transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, put the annual cost of the congested state of the region’s roads at $6 billion, when knock-on costs to the surrounding economy are included. That suggests annual congestion costs for the country as a whole would today approach $15 billion, nearly one per cent of GDP. Now factor in the rapid growth in population that Canada’s major cities are expected to undergo in coming decades. Something’s got to give.
And yet, nothing ever does. Though the nation’s roads and highways get more congested with each passing year, municipal and provincial governments persist in the same approaches that got us where we are today, which is to say, stuck in traffic. A City of Toronto newsletter, after happily running through some of the city’s many “traffic demand management” programs, ends by cautioning residents not to expect them to work. “We can’t solve the issue of congestion,” it says, “but we are trying to manage it better.” (Instead, readers are urged to see the “positive side” of congestion, as “the sign of a vibrant city.”)
But we can solve it. That our cities have failed to do so is not for lack of proven alternatives, but in wilful defiance of one in particular, a solution that not only has an impressive expert consensus in support of it but is already having notable success in other cities around the world. There’s even a working model of it in place right outside Toronto.
We do not have to suffer this daily indignity, in other words. It is not natural or inevitable that urban traffic should move with the speed of industrial sludge. It’s not often true of other social problems, but when it comes to traffic, there really is an Answer.