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(Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
(Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Ask Joanne

Why don't we tax drivers for smog? Add to ...

I think its about time we introduced some kind of emission or congestion charge to the city of Toronto. The traffic’s crazy, and it’s polluting our air. Why aren’t we doing this in Canada? – Travis in Toronto

With improvements in technology, emission rates per kilometre driven have declined over the past few decades, while the number of vehicles on the road in Canada has climbed more than 50 per cent in 30 years. In areas of high population density, as you’re well aware, the extent to which our society exercises its motoring privilege frequently manifests in traffic snarls.

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We’re all interested in reducing congestion, and we’d all be better off if our air was cleaner. You’ve certainly hit on a big topic to tackle here.

Scientific study tells us that climate change is a serious global environmental threat, and a direct result of elevated greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere.

Many scientists and researchers report that in order to arrive at no more than two degrees of global warming, we’ll have to bring average global emissions down to the neighbourhood of one tonne per person, per year.

“It’s not a precise science,” says acclaimed journalist, author, and activist George Monbiot, “but even one tonne, per person, per year might be too much.” Canada’s annual per capita output currently clocks in around 22 tonnes – more than double that of Britain or Japan, and fractionally less than our neighbours in the United States. According to Environment Canada, the transportation sector accounts for roughly one-quarter of our GHG emissions in Canada.

How best, then, to reduce congestion and tailpipe pollutants without having to completely give up our cars? The proposed solutions are as varied as the number of “experts” in the field.

Car pooling, public transit and cleaner vehicle technologies are measures which we’ve all heard about, and may participate in. The City of Toronto promotes all of these, through programs such as Smart Commute and FleetWise EV300. The Ontario Ministry of Environment’s Drive Clean is another program aimed at improving air quality through regulated inspection and maintenance of vehicle emission systems in selected areas. Still, congestion and pollution problems persist.

You’ve raised one possible solution – congestion charging – which is continuously discussed and debated by experts and policy makers. There is little, economists say, like a financial incentive or disincentive to inspire behavioural change.

The City of London in the United Kingdom is perhaps the best example where a fee is charged for certain vehicles travelling at certain times within a congestion charging zone. While the intent is to diminish gridlock, some reports say that dissuading drivers from idling in traffic clogs has had a small secondary effect in improving air quality. In addition, a plan to implement a purely emissions-based charge in Greater London is currently restricted to diesel-powered commercial vehicles.

Are there downsides to the idea of a congestion charge?

“Some drivers might not like the idea, because you’d be asking them to pay for something they didn’t have to pay for before,” says Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow. “But I’d submit to them that if they actually consider what they pay today – from sitting in the car for so much longer than they’d like when they’d rather get home to see their families or get to work on time in the morning, and the environmental cost of the emissions that they’re creating by being stalled in traffic, and the cost to our overall economy by not moving people, goods and services around our cities – we actually are paying for [congestion] we just don’t see the receipt for it directly.”

Surveillance of vehicles and administering charges could come with significant startup and operating costs, and planning is required to avoid associated logistical problems. Diverted traffic, for example, could increase congestion in neighbourhoods outside the toll zone.

Last year, Matlow brought a motion to council to ask staff to report on the possibility of implementing tolls on the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway, as a way to fight congestion, raise revenue for infrastructure such as maintenance of those highways, and put money into public transit infrastructure. It was defeated.

“In Toronto, it’s not a matter of hastily taking steps that will impose some new congestion pricing or tolls. What I believe we need is to have a genuine look at it,” says Matlow. “Let’s not be scared to say that we’re going to ask for a report from our staff, and then bring it to council for a debate and discussion. We all lose if we do nothing. We can look at the report and reject it if we choose to, but we shouldn’t fear to ask the questions, because we all know the status quo isn’t working for drivers, transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians together.”

Any big changes are going to rely on the policies and programs of city government. Why not get involved in a local group that shares your opinions and contact your politicians to let them know how you feel? In the meantime, lead by example. We know that the kind of car you drive and the amount of fuel you burn makes a difference. So does walking, carpooling, cycling, or taking transit during peak roadway hours.

E-Mail your automotive questions to Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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