Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are now among the world’s most congested cities. Traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto Area alone costs the economy $3.3-billion in lost productivity.
To persuade people to end their love affair with the automobile, the overall system of public transit must be radically improved. The federal government has, to its credit, extended an innovative program begun in 2005 that gives a portion of the tax collected on every litre of gas sold in Canada to a special municipal infrastructure fund.
However, Ottawa should earmark this money specifically for improvements to public transit – and not permit it to be spent on other infrastructure needs such as water and sewers, solid waste and energy systems.
Moreover, instead of transferring just five of the 10 cents in tax collected on gas, the federal government should allot the full amount to municipalities, and double their budgets. City governments would have greater financial flexibility to invest in long-term improvements, including better connections between commuter trains and city transit systems, and more routes for subways, buses and light rail. (Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is having serious difficulty finding sufficient funding for his flagship subway expansion program.)
In the meantime, congestion costs not only the economy, but the environment. Sitting in traffic for 79 minutes a day, as the average commuter in the GTA now does, takes a toll on people’s health, and cuts into family time. The alternatives to a massive investment in public transit are road tolls, taxes on parking spots, congestion zone fees and charging solo motorists who use high-occupancy vehicle lanes. All of these ideas are less politically palatable. And with vastly improved commuter links, people might actually be persuaded to leave their cars behind.