Jennifer Keesmaat is chief executive officer of the Keesmaat Group, working with corporate and political leaders to advance change in cities around the world. She is the former chief planner of Toronto.
More is sometimes better. More candy if you are a child. More blankets if you are cold. But more isn’t always better. More roads are not better if you are stuck in traffic. If you’re sitting in your car going nowhere in the fast lane, it is tempting to assume that if the roadway was just one lane wider, it would accommodate all the cars beside and behind you, and you could easily get where you are going in half the time. If the same number of drivers continued to use the road following the widening, this would of course be true.
But we know from decades of experience that widening roads and highways simply facilitates a further explosion of sprawling land uses, and the perception of more road capacity inspires more people to drive. This phenomenon, known as “induced demand,” results in meagre, if any, reductions in traffic or congestion after roads are built. If you provide more of something, particularly for free and in a high-density area, more people will show up to use it to its peak capacity. The roads will always be full, no matter how many of them you build. As a result, continuing the environmentally and fiscally ruinous practice of widening roads and highways – on the knowingly dishonest premise that they will reduce congestion – will make our cities, and the places we live, worse.
Houston’s now-infamous Katy Freeway, a 26-lane highway, is the ultimate case-in-point of this reality. The freeway was widened between 2008 and 2011 at a cost of nearly US$3-billion. Traffic data collected three years later showed that travel times had increased by 30 per cent during the morning commute and 55 per cent in the evening commute.
Houstonians had made their own commute worse. This dynamic was identified as early as the 1960s as the Law of Peak Hour Traffic Congestion: On urban commuter expressways, peak-hour traffic congestion rises to meet maximum capacity. It turns out, we are not just one lane or one new highway away from commuting nirvana.
In sharp contrast, road tolls and congestion pricing (both geographic and time-based) are transportation-planning magic: they are among the most effective tools at shifting road user behaviour, and at the same time drive revenue for transit expansion. Just as adding a new road inspires more people to drive, road pricing inspires people to make different choices about how they will get where they are going. People still have the choice to drive, or to change their behaviour to avoid the toll or charge; the former is effective from a congestion management standpoint if their choice is to leave their car at home, as is the latter if they choose to drive at an off-peak period or to avoid a part of a city with a geographic congestion charge zone. The irony of building more roads is that much of the time most of our roads are underused – we all try to use them at the same time and they get jammed up. Road pricing distributes our use of those same roads, thereby shifting more movement to times when roads are currently underutilized, or to more efficient modes, such as walking, cycling and transit.
London famously became a leader in urban road pricing nearly two decades ago, when it began charging drivers to enter the city core between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. The results transformed the city: Congestion was reduced by 30 per cent, crashes decreased by 28 per cent, emissions went down by 12 per cent and more than $4-billion was raised in the first 10 years, much of it reinvested into public-transit expansion. Singapore and Stockholm have seen similarly impressive results from their own congestion-pricing schemes, and earlier this year, the state of New York announced it will introduce its version in Manhattan – legislated via the appropriately named Traffic Mobility Act – on Jan. 1, 2021, which is expected to raise nearly $20-billion for transit expansion.
But here’s the rub: Road pricing is rarely popular prior to its implementation. It takes political will and guts to get it done, to convince a skeptical public that they will be better off paying for something they currently perceive to be free. In Stockholm, a doubting public quickly grew to support road pricing once they saw and experienced the benefits in their city, including a 20-per-cent drop in people driving into the core during peak periods and significantly reduced commute times.
Earlier this month, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation announced that it would revive the plan to build the GTA West highway, a 50-kilometre stretch of major new highway that would connect Highway 401 with the 410 and 400. Residents have been told this is a godsend – key infrastructure that will fix “a missing link” and reduce their commute. But doing so will contribute to the problem, rather than solve it. An expert, data-driven approach would be grounded in using the infrastructure we currently have today, better. And road pricing is the tool to achieve this.
Providing more and better choices is key to encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home, and the most effective way to do that is to invest in public transit. This, of course, requires money: This is where road pricing can and should enter the equation.
Of the trips accounting for the reduction in traffic in London’s congestion zone, 50 per cent to 60 per cent was attributed to people choosing to take public transit, 20 per cent to 30 per cent to people choosing to avoid the zone, 15 per cent to 25 per cent to people choosing to switch to car-share and the remainder to people choosing other forms of transportation. Road pricing inspires the better distribution of a scarce resource (road capacity) through the expansion of user choice, but it can only take us so far.
But how does all of this translate into the Canadian context? In many areas across the country disincentives to driving, such as tolls or taxes, are hard to imagine since many drivers are starved for reasonable alternatives; in Canadian cities, drivers are often relatively price inelastic not because driving is their first choice, but because it is their only choice. This lack of choice puts us in a double bind: We continue the expansion of ineffectual road projects, further entrenching both congestion and environments where we lack mobility choices. A further harm is that governmental budgeting is a closed-loop system: A few hundred million dollars spent on widening a road that will be full in a few years is a few hundred million dollars that won’t be spent on transit expansion that could induce people to get out of their cars. The opportunity cost of wasting vast sums of money on a project that won’t do anything to solve congestion is the underinvestment in solutions that are proven to alleviate it.
In places where it has been implemented, revenue from road pricing has been reinvested into better public-transit options, even in cities such as London and Stockholm, which already have much more extensive transit infrastructure than most Canadian cities do. Maddeningly, Canadian cities will only continue to fall even further behind on their transit expansion ambitions if key monies, expertise and effort are wasted on roads.
We need to reach a moment in time where we just hop off this crazy merry-go-round and decide to stop the road building insanity – which is compromising our quality of life, our productivity, our health and our capacity to meet our carbon-reduction targets.
As the Ecofiscal Commission recommended last week, it’s time for Canadian cities to think big and give congestion pricing a chance. Pilot projects would be a good place to start.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.