Getting Toronto Moving: smart transportation policy for Ontario’s biggest city

Getting Toronto Moving: smart transportation policy for Ontario’s biggest city

According to Metrolinx’s Commuter Attitudes Survey Report, 90 percent of respondents said transportation was one of the most important issues in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) with congestion given as the primary reason. A recent report from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that Canadians waste 10,000 years annually (124.4 million hours) stuck in traffic due to congestion—Toronto accounted for 51.6 million hours with Montréal coming in a distant second at 26.3 million hours. Congestion is a major reason Torontonians’ have longer commutes than most Canadians, with 17 percent spending more than 60 minutes getting to work compared to just nine percent of Canadians. This aligns with the lived experience of most Ontarians who live in the region.

Who pays for the economic impact of congestion?

Transportation policy has an incredible impact on our economy—in 2008 Metrolinx estimated the annual cost to the economy of congestion in the GTHA was $2.7 billion and that by 2031 that number will rise to $7.2 billion if no action is taken. As we head into a provincial election all political parties should be discussing transportation and transit issues, however any proposed policies must address basic concerns around the reliability, price and safety of public and active transit if they wish to influence the commuter behaviours that are slowing down the movement of people and goods in Ontario[1] .

Exhibit 1

A graph shows the commute times (1-20 minutes, 30-59 minutes, 60+ minutes) for Canadian urban centres as well as for Ontario and Canada

Much of Toronto’s congestion can be attributed to the inefficient use of our roads—56 percent of people commute by car alone. While more people rely on public transit in Toronto than in other parts of Canada, there is still room for improvement. There is simply not enough space on our roads for all the people who commute alone yet we aren’t doing anything to disincentivize this behaviour.

Exhibit 2

How employed individuals commute to work
Location Driving Alone Public Transit Active Transit
Toronto 56% 24% 7%
Ottawa-Gatineau 59 18 9
Vancouver 58 20 9
Montreal 61 22 7
Calgary 67 14 6
Halifax 62 12 9
Winnipeg 64 14 6
Canada 67 12 7
Ontario 66 15 6
Note: percentages do not add up to 100% as there are other modes of transportation not included in this table
Source: Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity analysis based on data from Census 2016 Catalogue Number 98-400-X2016335

In October 2017, Vancouver found out just how efficient tolls are at dissuading drivers. When tolls were removed from the Port Mann Bridge, traffic increased by 25 percent overnight. While often unpopular, tolls are a better way to raise tax revenues for transit than increases to sales or income taxes because they not only reduce a negative externality (congestion from overuse of the roads), but also do not negatively impact the broader economy. On the other hand, when governments increase sales or income taxes, it results in a wider economic cost as people on the margin (i.e., low income individuals) opt not to make purchases or work more hours due to higher taxes. It is the Institute’s view that increasing the provincial sales tax should only be used to raise revenue for public transit as a last resort.

It would be wise for Ontario to re-examine the tolls  Mayor John Tory proposed for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway in late 2016 which the provincial government promptly vetoed. Tory is not the first to propose road tolls for Toronto—in 2013 Metrolinx’s Investment Strategy and the Transit Panel chaired by Anne Golden both recommended tolls as a revenue generating tool for public transit.  As other urban centres take steps to become car-free, Toronto needs find a way to agressively reduce daily lone commuting. On the other hand, congestion taxes cannot be introduced if the government is not also commited to making public transit faster, more reliable and cost efficient for potential transit users—43 per cent of lone drivers would be motivated to switch to transit if it were faster and more reliable according to Metrolinx’s Commuter Attitudes Survey.

How do we influence drivers to ditch their cars?

The recent commitment by both the federal and provincial governments to fund transit infrastructure based on ridership, including over $8 billion for the GTHA, is a smart decision that will support increased future productivity, but it will be decades before residents see the impact of this investment on their daily commute. In addition to disbursing transit funding to municipalities based on ridership, projects should also be prioritized based on evidence and not politics, nor should they be subject to price uncertainty of the magnitude of the now $5.2 billion Scarborough Subway Extension.

Toronto needs to continue implementing small projects that improve the transit experience immediately. If the King Street Pilot Project demonstrates value in its first year, there is no reason similar transit-first projects shouldn’t be implemented in other parts of the GTHA. Additionally, the TTC, GO Transit, and and the various regional transit authorities must speed up fare integration to make transit more appealing for commuters travelling across regional boundaries. Currently, a transit user crossing from Mississauga’s MiWay or York’s BRT service to the TTC must pay two fares, creating less of a cost incentive for drivers considering switching to tranit.

As Torontonians are encouraged by government to reduce their reliance on cars, we must consider and address the safety issues pedestrians and cyclists face. In mid-January, the Toronto police launched a pedestrian safety campaign after ten pedestrians were struck by vehicles in a dark and rainy two hour period on January 11. While all survived, by March 3 eleven pedestrians had been killed in Toronto. Despite the implementation of the Vision Zero Plan, if pedestrians fatalities continue at this rate throughout the rest of 2018, we will surpass the number of annual pedestrian fatalities in 2016 (43) and 2017 (36).

The World Health Organization found that a pedestrian hit at 45km/h has a 50 percent chance of being killed while a person struck by a vehicle travelling 30km/hr has a 90 per cent chance of surviving. But the process of deviating from the default urban limit of 50km/hr set by the province is onerous and costly for municipalities—they must pass a bylaw and post a sign on every street subject to a lower limit. Several years ago the province considered unburdening municipalities the time and cost implications of these requirements but quietly abandoned the initiative. This is dissapointing considering 81 per cent of Toronto residents support lower speed limits on city roads even if it means increased travel time.

Dedicated bike lanes cut cycling injuries in half and clearly demarked pedestrian spaces would no doubt have the same impact—most pedestrian fatalities occur when walking across an arterial road in the suburbs where there is no traffic signal or crosswalk. Fatalities for cyclists in Toronto are much lower than for pedestrians, likely in part due to the fact that many of the cycling routes recommended in the 2001 Bike Plan have been installed.

Toronto needs more control over its transportation policy

One year ago, our Executive Director Jamison Steeve published an opinion piece in the Toronto Star arguing that Toronto—as 10 per cent of the national population and GDP and 20 percent of provincial GDP—ought to be given special powers due to its outsized role in the economy. This is no less true today. GTHA municipalities are unique in Ontario in that inefficiencies within their transportation systems have the ability to impact the province’s entire economy. It is in the province’s best interest to give the City of Toronto the freedom to enact transportation policies that address commuters’ concerns and influence their behaviours. How we move goods, services and people throughout the Toronto region is a central question for the future of the province.

Written by Margaret Campbell

Photo credit: mikeinlondon, iStockphoto


[1] Active transit refers to any form of human-powered transportation, most notably walking and cycling.

Category: City of Toronto, Public Policy, Economy, Public Transit