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No free ride to solving our gridlock woes

Royson James

WHAT WOULD you be willing to give up to help solve the problem of traffic congestion - a creeping encroachment that threatens to choke the economy, clog streets and curb our proclivity to live in one community and work in some distant other?

That’s one of the questions asked at a University of Toronto conference yesterday on the gridlock problem. The answers, given by government bureaucrats, consultants, planners - the chattering class, if you will - ranged from “a day’s pay” to “absolutely nothing.”

One participant said his one-acre lot was sacrosanct and he was not willing to sacrifice the size of the property or the low-density neighbourhood to solve the problem, which, he says, was costing him time and money.


Almost all the participants in my group were willing to pay more user fees - tolls, gas charges, even property taxes dedicated for transportation - but the consensus was that people are not willing to give up their freedom of choice. Well, choice costs. And the reason why so many people choose to drive when their commuting pattern or their line of work suggests otherwise is because one doesn’t have to be well-off to afford this option.

But, increase the cost of that option and maybe more commuters would put up with the inconvenience of public transit. People walk a kilometre to SkyDome rather than pay $20 to park right next to the stadium.

Otherconference ideas that made one go “Hmmmmm”:

  • Transit is a driver’s best friend. When you’re sitting in traffic at 8:30 a.m. “you want transit because you suppose the other guy’s going to take it.”
  • There must be a way to reward the bus crammed with 80 people as opposed to the 80 cars, each with just the driver, jockeying with the bus for limited road space. (Maybe by providing reserved bus lanes on every major arterial road, as TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme told Toronto’s budget committee yesterday.)
  • “Congestion is inevitable. The market has a mind of its own.”
  • Greater Toronto transportation needs should be turned over to a body with powers like the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. It should have authority to borrow money, follow a business model that funds projects that have a financial payback. So, what happens to transit as the great equalizer, as the social responsibility of governments, as a social policy tool to move the masses in an environmentally sound manner when cheaper, less equitable solutions might exist?
  • “I’m not willing to give up another day (of wages) to taxes,” said one participant who commutes three hours daily.
  • Downtown Toronto traffic is “absolute Nirvana” compared to Steeles Ave. and other thoroughfares in the suburbs.
  • Canada needs a national urban policy. Even then, the trick will be how to get Ottawa to drop the mantra of “If we give it to Toronto, we have to give it to everyone else.” One solution is to lobby the federal government to declare Toronto a city with a national interest.
  • Municipalities need massive new funding streams and tools. But they can do more with what they have. “It’s more difficult to get 15 parking spaces off King St. to accommodate the streetcar line than spending $200 million to get transit to an Idomo store (TTC’s one-station extension to Downsview).”
  • By some estimates, gridlock or traffic congestion costs the area economy some $2 billion per year in lost productivity.

Obviously, this isn’t a crisis just yet. When it becomes so, solutions will be more costly.

Royson James’ column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.