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October 14, 2003

Two Toronto Traffic Transformations

Toronto traffic sucked years ago. Since then, it's become even worse. I thank God Almighty that I don't live in Toronto. The times that I do have to go through or (God defend me) into Toronto I dread the drive. Thereby, I am presenting two ideas that could significantly improve the traffic situation in Toronto.


Freeing the Core

One of the most offensive non-highway parts of Toronto traffic exists in the downtown core. I have found myself right down on Yonge south of Bloor, inching forward, fending off taxis as I try to merge from a disappearing lane. For years I believed, and still do, that downtown Toronto would greatly benefit from permanently banning motor vehicles on Yonge Street from Bloor all the way down to Front Street. Take a page out of Ottawa's books and create Toronto's very own version of Spark Street, but with even more life, more business, more vitality.

If you're familiar with Toronto, you'll understand the potential that exists in a pedestrian-only Yonge. The theatres in and around Yonge would see their crowds come early for dinner, and staying later. Parklands could be developed on every block, providing shade, beauty, and some much-needed greenery. It could be a Mecca for buskers and mimes... OK, so it's not all roses, but it's still a good idea.

In case that idea doesn't appeal to anyone, there's another solution. Although it won't revive Yonge Street or give Torontonians a breathtaking new pedestrian Utopia, it will certainly reduce the amount of traffic that attempts to flow through the downtown core.

Recently, London, England implemented a permit system for vehicles using the downtown core. Unless you have purchased a permit - which allows you to both drive in and through and park in the downtown core area - you will be fined a hefty amount. Residents and businesses in the core receive a 90% discount off of the cost of a permit, but they are not exempt. What this has done is made people think with their wallets, and has diverted or prevented a lot of traffic within and coming into the core area. Delivery services have seen their delivery times drop dramatically, repaying the cost of the permits in saved time very quickly.

Such a system would be easy to implement in Toronto. The technology already exists all across the city on the 407 toll highway. Simply piggyback the downtown core area onto the existing infrastructure using the existing technology, and you have a downtown that is no longer clogged with traffic that does not need to be there, and Toronto gets another much-needed stream of income.


Stop The Bedroom City Commute

In the waning days of the recent Ontario provincial election, then-Premier Ernie Eves desperately flapped his mouth, and out came the promise that he would help solve Toronto's highway congestion woes by building new highways. The details of this superficially excellent idea turned out to be that he would widen and/or lengthen highways 400, 410, and 427. Of course, that would do nothing to solve Toronto's highway congestion. In fact, widening said highways would only further open the bedroom community floodgates even further, allowing an even bigger stream of farther-flung commuters to live elsewhere and drive into Toronto daily.

What Toronto needs is a way to get commuters out of their vehicles and into trains and buses. Unfortunately, with people willing to drive an hour and bus and train service poor or non-existent outside of the Greater Toronto Area, that's not going to happen. Adding nice new high-speed roadways funneling into Toronto will only make the matter worse. So, what's a province to do? I say start narrowing highways, or taking some out altogether.

I once heard anecdotally that the cost of a new freeway could be measured in schools per kilometer. That is a lot of cash to throw at a system that is already underutilized on a passenger-per-vehicle basis. Expanding the system for the convenience of single occupant vehicles coming into Toronto in the morning and out again in the late afternoon does not seem to be a worthy proposition, nor one that will in any way help Canada meet our Kyoto accord targets. A much saner solution would be to somehow entice commuters into public transit, or at least strongly dissuade them from using their personal vehicles. Narrowing highways seems like a good way to do this.

Imagine, if you will, that the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) between Toronto and Hamilton were suddenly reduced from three to two lanes both ways. An already permanently congested highway would become all but impassable for most of the regular workday. What would commuters do? Some, like my friend that lives in Burlington and works in Toronto, would take the bus. Others would abandon their vehicles and head to the nearest GO train. Of course, both the bus and train system are already well established along that corridor, but the influx of new commuters desperate to opt out of the hell that the QEW would have become would allow both systems to be improved and expanded. Lather, rinse, and repeat for other commuter-heavy corridors.

Perhaps that's a bit drastic, so let's look at a friendlier approach to getting commuters out of personal vehicles. It should be a relatively straightforward task for Statistics Canada to determine which communities outside of Toronto are becoming the new bedroom communities, favoured by commuters that work in Toronto but can't afford to or don't want to live there. Instead of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to pave over fertile Ontario farmland for these people to drive over twice daily, why not use that same money to subsidize public transit to and from the community? Maybe a bus service, light rail line, or full-blown GO train extension could be subsidized by the province for a few years until commuters get the message that a new highway isn't going to be built for their convenience, so they'd better decide between semi-convenient public transportation and clogged highways. If we go a step further and ensure that any improvements to highways (other than the 400-series highways) linking communities with Toronto would be the sole financial responsibility of the linked municipality - and thereby the commuters themselves through huge municipal tax hikes - those public transit routes would start looking pretty rosy indeed.

No matter whether it's the congested core of a major metropolis or the highways feeding it, convenience seems to be the driving factor in deciding this province's transportation strategy. Until this is realized and reversed, we will forever be expanding highways because we keep demanding that our exact needs be met. Until we can put our inflexible schedules aside and accept that some "inconvenience" can easily be absorbed by our schedules to the benefit to our environment and wallets, we will forever be begging for more and better roads, only to have that extra capacity used up and overworked by yet more single occupant vehicles.

Highway capacity is like money - you'll always find a way to use more than you have. It's high time to look for other solutions that aren't made of asphalt.


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