Congestion and Transit in Toronto

By Dom Nozzi

May 2013

In 2013, a Toronto friend told me that traffic congestion is a problem in that city and its economy.

I told him that I don’t agree that congestion significantly harms the local economy (in most cases). See, for example, this from the economist Todd Litman : http://www.vtpi.org/UMR_critique.pdf Transportation “improvements” to “reduce” congestion suffer today from the law of diminishing returns.

Each transport dollar we now spend results in fewer and fewer benefits than in the past (indeed, in my view, most all dollars WORSEN our communities and their economies).

It is not a coincidence that the most economically healthy cities tend to be severely congested. Because cars consume so much space, only a tiny number of people in cars are needed to create congestion. Given that, there is a problem if a city is NOT congested in certain locations. The problem is not congestion. Congestion is a sign of a healthy, attractive city that people want to be a part of. The problem is when there are no alternatives to avoid the congestion.

Congestion is a powerful motivator. It can be very helpful in generating the political will to create alternatives to avoid the congestion, as Toronto is finding with its interest in more transit. Other ways to avoid the largely inevitable congestion: More housing in town center locations. More street connections (by reducing dead ends and cul-de-sacs). Tolling roads. Putting roads on a diet. Making streets more “complete” so they handle more than just cars. More jobs and shopping in residential areas. Properly priced car parking (nearly all cities provide too much underpriced or free parking). Cash-out parking. Unbundled parking. Paying for car insurance at the gas pump. And so on.

As a Michael Ronkin and I often say these days, creating more walking, bicycling and transit is much more about TAKING AWAY things from motorists (subsidies, road & parking space, etc.) than it is about providing facilities for bicycling, walking and Safeway-July-2015-smtransit. So while sidewalks, bike paths and better transit are usually important, it is typically the case that such things are secondary to doing the things I list above.

Too many cities put the cart before the horse by providing transit with the necessary prerequisites of properly managed parking, proper pricing, and proper land uses, for example. Toronto has done reasonably well on this. But I also suspect there is much more they can do to create better conditions for healthy transit.

Easy and fair way to pay for more and better transit is tolling roads and properly pricing the parking, among other things. I suspect as good as the city is compared to most other cities, Toronto has a long way to go in creating fair user fees for transport. I’m sure that like in most larger cities, transit is well-used because it is costly and inconvenient (as it should be, for fairness and quality of life) to drive a car.

“Agglomeration Economies” are very important for the (economic and social) health of a city, and things that “ease congestion” tend to create urban DISPERSAL, which directly undercuts the agglomeration economies that cities need to be healthy.

Something else to consider: the “travel time budget,” which informs us that humans are apparently hard-wired for a certain amount of time allocated to daily commuting. Cross-culturally and throughout history, that budget tends to be about 1.2 hours per day (some do more, some do less, but the average is about 1.2). Given that, we can know the consequences of certain actions regarding congestion: When faced with the “time tax” of congestion, many will (in the long run) live closer to work or travel at non-rush hour times or take different routes, or travel by bike/bus/walking as a way to stay within their travel time budget.

The conventional (and mostly failed) approach is to “ease congestion” by widening roads and intersections. The triple convergence and travel time budget let us know that by doing so, we will NOT ease congestion for very long (by widening). About all we will achieve is greater geographic dispersal of where jobs, shopping and housing are found in the city (city sprawl accelerates). That, of course, quickly worsens sprawl and increases commute times.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

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