This column would have been completed sooner, but I was stuck in traffic.
There’s nothing unusual about that. Not in the Greater Toronto Area. The commute from my home in the region’s east end to the western office in Etobicoke takes about an hour when everything flows smoothly, and the drive is seldom described in such terms. Rush hour transformed into rush hours many years ago. Construction activity and collisions simply add to the misery, blocking the few available lanes.
To compound matters, Highway 401 is considered the busiest highway in North America. Yay us.
How much does congestion cost?
The challenges of congestion are no secret to those who haul freight for a living – certainly not those who are paid by the mile — but the estimated costs can still be shocking. The Toronto Board of Trade estimates gridlock costs the city about $6 billion a year, but the C.D. Howe Institute says such costs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are as much as $11 billion when considering social impacts like helping to ensure people can access jobs that better match their skills.
Toronto is not alone in its misery, even if it is the most congested city in Canada. The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) reported this October that congestion in the U.S. cost the trucking industry US$94.6 billion in 2021 – up 27% over a six-year period. (To offer some context, the Consumer Price Index rose 12.9% in that time.) Trucks were delayed 1.27 billion hours, the equivalent of parking 460,000 of them for a year.
The issue is clearly more than an inconvenience or fodder for road rage. It saps productivity and brings economic opportunities to a literal standstill. And it certainly hits truck drivers directly in the pocketbook.
And let’s not forget the environmental implications. The ATRI study estimated that the 2021 delays wasted 6.793 billion US gallons (25.7 billion liters) of fuel. Diesel continues to burn even if the wheels on the road fail to turn.
The law of road congestion
The answers are hardly simple, though.
University of Toronto economist Matthew Turner co-authored a study into the “fundamental law of road congestion” in 2009, taking a deep dive into highway data in 1983, 1993 and 2003, along with issues from geography to employment and political factors. Its findings challenged the notion that new or wider highways would solve the problem. The number of vehicle-kilometers that are traveled simply increase proportionally to the kilometers of lanes that are available.
In other words, if you build it, the traffic will come. And congestion will return almost as quickly as the new asphalt can be laid.
Environmental Defense has made a similar case in arguing against plans to build Highway 413 – a route connecting a Highway 401/407 interchange in the west with Highway 400 in Vaughan — suggesting that Ontario would be better served by offsetting truck tolls on the privately owned Highway 407 Express Toll Route north of the city. By its calculations, 30 years of subsidized tolls would still cost less in net present value than the new highway, estimated to cost $6 billion.
It’s a bit of a leap to suggest that new highways are not needed in any growing area. But Turner’s co-authored paper suggested that policymakers might make more headway by focusing on specific bottlenecks rather than trying to justify broad highway expansions.
No matter what asphalt we lay, we can’t overlook the role of public policy and technology in tackling congestion, either. Steps that lead commuters to public transit and carpooling options can ease some of the rush-hour crunch. Shippers and fleets can optimize times and routes by combining vehicle locations and artificial intelligence. Smart traffic signals can adjust recommended speed limits based on road conditions, to keep everything flowing.
There’s no single answer here. We just can’t afford to sit still.
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