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Long-term lane closings on the Gardiner and construction ahead of the Pan Am Games is sure to increase commuter stress. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Long-term lane closings on the Gardiner and construction ahead of the Pan Am Games is sure to increase commuter stress. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Why traffic congestion is driving Toronto crazy Add to ...

Frustrated drivers are shaping up to be this election’s key voting bloc.

In spite of data showing that commuting times here aren’t so bad – the best available information shows that the bulk of Torontonians commute about as long as people have spent on their daily travels throughout history – congestion, construction, stress and the demands of modern parenting can come together to make it seem worse. It’s a combination that has turned the issue into electoral gold in this autumn’s municipal election.

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Four years after Rob Ford won the mayoralty and vowed to end the “war on the car,” the leading mayoral candidates are desperate to be seen as allies of drivers.

John Tory vows not to accept any solution for the Gardiner East that will increase commute times. Olivia Chow talks tough about construction that closes lanes to traffic. And Mr. Ford vows to bury as much transit as he can, thereby reserving road space for drivers.

But even though transportation is looking like the hot-button issue of this election – anecdotal evidence of woes abound, scratch a commuter and you’ll get a story – it’s surprisingly hard to find good information about the reality on the roads.

Much of the available data looks at the region – which advocates say has a $6-billion congestion problem – but it’s not clear on the face of it that there is a crisis specifically in Toronto, where the candidates are scrambling for votes. In fact, for an issue that tends to provoke such angry public rhetoric, useful data about Toronto itself is thin.

When asked about Toronto commute times, city-planning staff point to three-year-old data from Statistics Canada. The 2011 National Household Survey showed that in 40 of the city’s 44 wards, the median one-way commute time was either 30 or 31 minutes. The outliers were the three downtown wards, with median commute times in the low- to mid-20s, and Ward 44, in east Scarborough, where it was 35 minutes.

Other 2011 numbers from Statscan showed that the average one-way commute for the residents in the City of Toronto was 33.5 minutes. This is almost exactly in line with regional figures released this week as part of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which looked at GTA commute times.

More recent figures come from an Angus Reid poll released last month by Move the GTHA, a transportation advocacy coalition. One-quarter of Toronto commuters took no more than 15 minutes each way on a typical day, their data shows, and a total of 56 per cent took no more than half an hour. Only 12 per cent commuted an hour or more each way.

Admittedly, averages and medians may be cold comfort to those whose commutes are at the extremes. And 12 per cent can make a vocal minority. Plus, normal routines risk being thrown out of whack by long-term lane closings on the Gardiner and by the prospect of an unusually disruptive summer of construction, as the city prepares for the Pan American Games. There’s also no question that crowding is a serious problem in parts of the transit system, which is straining as it carries more than 10 million people each week.

But what’s striking about Toronto commutes is how well they bear out Marchetti’s Constant. This planning and transportation principle holds that people are willing to travel about an hour a day and arrange their life accordingly. In medieval cities, that took the form of walls enclosing a space small enough that people could walk to the centre and back in that time. Horse travel stretched the distance people were willing to go, early public transit extended it again with so-called “streetcar suburbs” and the postwar commuter boom let people go even farther. But the time people have been willing to budget for travel has remained remarkably consistent, and the data show that still holds true for most commuters in Toronto.

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