Taking the snarl out of traffic

National Post
June 9, 2000

Aside from buying an airplane, here are three simple ideas for getting home in fewer than three hours.

”We’re flying northbound above the Don Valley Parkway, and boy-oh-boy-oh-boy, traffic is rock solid from Pottery Road all the way to York Mills. As for the southbound DVP – jammed! Alternates aren’t much better I’m afraid … Bayview north of Eglinton — jammed! Yonge Street — jammed! Bathurst is bumper-to-bumper. Wow, it’s best you just avoid the whole area if you can. Moving along to the westbound express lanes of the 401, it’s a really slow ride home from Victoria Park all the way to Keele Street. The collector lanes aren’t faring much better. Yikes! Eastbound 401 is a write-off, with traffic bunching up from Avenue Road all the way past Kennedy. As for northbound on the 404 and the 400 — jammed. Oh, man, what a ride home today.” — A recent Toronto radio afternoon rush-hour traffic report.

Traffic. Just the mere mention of the word makes commuters cringe. Ah, if only cruising the highways and the byways was as joyful as it’s made out to be in all those TV ads for new cars. You know: endless kilometres of winding, scenic roads without so much as a wayward Austin Mini impeding your Indianapolis Speedway-like progression from point A to B.

Alas, unless buying your own private island with newly acquired lottery riches is in the works, it’s doubtful you’ll ever see such a utopian state of commuting bliss. Instead, those of us who live in major cities are routinely subjected to the damnation that is gridlock. And if traffic jam hell seems ever more commonplace these days, it’s not a figment of your imagination. Rather, it’s Mathematics 101: cities are accommodating an ever-increasing number of cars travelling on a finite number of roads. The not-so-surprising end result: increased congestion.

But does it really have to be like this? Some observers say no — and that the only thing standing in the way of freeing up gridlock is political will.

Lawrence Solomon, executive director of the Urban Renaissance Institute (a Toronto-based think-tank) advocates three dramatic reforms that, if enacted, would virtually eliminate gridlocked roads overnight.

Mr. Solomon’s ideas:

1. Eliminating “public transit monopolies” so that private carriers can enter the market and determine their own routes. “We would see a huge increase in the use of public transit, because it would become much more service-oriented,” Mr. Solomon says.

While privatizing public transit may seem like a somewhat radical idea, the fact is many public transit systems used to be private until local governments decided they wanted to control transportation several decades ago. But there is room for change. Mr. Solomon points to the United Kingdom, where public transit systems were privatized beginning in 1986.

“Cities sold off public transit authorities for a lot of money, which was beneficial to taxpayers,” Mr. Solomon notes. “Fares increased very modestly — much less than rate increases in Toronto — and service improved. These days, it (transit) is much better for handicapped people, the routes compete with each other, the waits are much shorter — in rush hour you never have to wait more than a couple of minutes on most routes, and ridership is way, way up. Passengers are coming back to transit.”

2. Deregulate the taxi business and allow for the implementation of shared cab services.

Mr. Solomon says the only role a municipality should have when it pertains to cabs is ensuring that drivers are licensed and the vehicles are roadworthy. “Other than that, we shouldn’t be deciding how many taxis are on the road and how much they charge,” Mr. Solomon says. “Politicians got a hold of the taxi business the same way they got a hold of the transit business and, as a result, customers are getting very poor service at high prices.”

3. Vastly increase the number of toll roads.

“I would toll everything, including neighbourhood roads,” says Mr. Solomon, noting that the technology exists to do so. “By tolling the roads, we would eliminate this uneven playing field with people having free use of the roads. The problem is local taxpayers pay for the use of local roads, but commuters don’t, and commuters should be paying for the use of city roads if they are from outside the city.”

As well, toll roads would give people an incentive to either use public transit more often or to increase usage of existing cars. “People would be more likely to share a car with a neighbour, so you would get higher occupancy of existing automobiles,” Mr. Solomon says.

Of course, there would be no shortage of opposition to Mr. Solomon’s reforms. Public transit unions would fight tooth and nail. And the owners of taxi plates, who do very well under the current system, would not be keen on deregulation either. “Any time you have a monopoly, you always have some people who are taking advantage of the rest of us,” Mr. Solomon says. “And these people tend to have political friends that would resist it.”

Harry Gow, of Transport 2000 (an Ottawa-based group that lobbies for improved transit conditions), says he agrees with some of Mr. Solomon’s reforms.

For example, in terms of bus and taxi deregulation, he points to Rimouski, a town in Quebec that dumped its bus fleet, opting to put its transit budget toward subsidizing a shared taxi system. These days, a person can travel anywhere in Rimouski for a flat rate of $2. “There are taxi stops just like a bus system, and while the riders can’t get the exclusive use of the taxi, they do get to go anywhere for two bucks,” says Mr. Gow, noting that the system “has been copied to a degree on the Island of Montreal and on the Montreal south shore,” (where taxis are used to replace buses during off-peak hours and on weekends.)

Bottom line: Will there ever be a solution for gridlock in Canada’s major cities, or are increasingly horrific traffic jams an accomplished urban fate?

Mr. Solomon says the first step toward a solution might just be a forward-thinking politician running for office on the platform of eliminating gridlock and lowering taxes “In Toronto, if the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) were sold, it would fetch a pretty penny and, at the same time, it would relieve the city of $100-million a year in subsidies. This could be a tax issue as well as improvement in transportation services and a reduction in pollution — it’s a very nice package if someone can put it together.”

Mr. Gow, however, believes public fury over gridlock will be the catalyst for bringing about change. “People have to be up to their nose in you-know-what before thinking about reacting — and they need to be up to their eyes before they actually will react,” Mr. Gow says.

“My guess is that it’s going to be another five years before people start really screaming about the situation and demand some action.”

Until then, happy motoring … er, assuming you’re not caught in traffic, that is.

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This entry was posted in Automobile, Cities, Public transit, Toll roads, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

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