Ian Chisholm drives from the Danforth to Rexdale everyday for work. The highway driving doesn’t generally bring him grief. He’s going against the greater flow of traffic and it’s a chance for him to play loud music. It’s when the 36-year-old toy-company executive has to spend half a day travelling to and from a half-hour meeting in town that he loses his cool.
“The gridlock in this city infuriates me,” he says. “It’s when you need to get somewhere and all you see is a string of red lights. Maybe there’s a building site taking over half the street, or workers staring at a broken water main. During the summer you’ve got marathons and protests. My wife knows better than to talk to me when I get home.”
Marital miscommunication aside, Mr. Chisholm’s complaints would be familiar to anyone who sits behind a steering wheel in the city. Last year the Toronto Board of Trade released a study that contends congestion is costing the region more than $6-billion a year in lost productivity. It placed Toronto last among 19 major cities worldwide for commute times, and pointed out that with 100,000 people moving to the region every year, Toronto should probably have a plan in place to address the slow throttling of the city.
The thing is, Toronto doesn’t have one, at least not yet. City staff haven't studied congestion. There are detailed studies of traffic volume but nothing on what happens when that volume exceeds capacity and becomes gridlock. Over the next few weeks the terms of reference will be set for a year-long study that will begin to investigate all aspects of congestion, but only between Jarvis and Bathurst and from Queen to Lake Shore Blvd.
According to Mike Brady, a manager in Toronto’s transportation services, traffic volume is highest near Highway 401, far from downtown. On a recent tour of Toronto’s busiest intersection, Bayview and Sheppard Avenue East, he surveys a familiar sight. It’s 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and three lanes of southbound cars are backed up for 80 metres behind a road crew filling in potholes.
“Disruptions cause congestion faster near the highway, because of the higher volumes,” says Mr. Brady.
He produces a 2010 study showing that 54,947 vehicles passed through this intersection in an eight-hour period (including 105 bicycles), a 38 per cent increase in 24 years.
Mr. Brady says the city tries to manage these new volumes by looking at intersections not in isolation but as part of a cluster.
“We might be able to make one intersection more efficient [by manipulating the signals] but it would create havoc through the system.” The automated signals, he says, work on traffic models that connect them to adjacent intersections.
Synchronizing lights in bi-directional street systems is complex enough that success, when achieved, is subtle. It’s a little easier to appreciate downtown on one-way streets such as Adelaide and Richmond. But even with no opposing traffic to contend with, congestion builds quickly when maximum volumes are tripped up by disruptions.
A disruption could arise from construction, stopped delivery trucks or accidents, none of which fit neatly into traffic planning models. So to help combat traffic snarls, the city has adopted a strategy of short strokes. It has targeted illegal parking – last month, city council voted for increased fines for blocking the curb lane. The so-called “lane hog fine” will rise from $60 to $150 if approved by the Ontario Court of Justice. As for developments that spill hoarding onto streets for months at a time, city spokesperson Steve Johnston says street occupation permits run up to $43 per day for lane closures.
It’s this ever-changing nature of traffic that leads Mr. Brady to think commuters will have to embrace the information age to get by. On the city website, drivers can check traffic cameras showing conditions on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway. There is also a list of current road restrictions and expected highway closures. The city also maintains a Tripinfo telephone line (416-599-9090).
Support for these, and for even newer forms of information, comes from an unlikely source. Jim Curran is retiring this month after 40 years of reporting on Toronto’s traffic for the CBC. He says he’s seen Toronto’s commuting patterns get so complicated that radio reports just aren’t enough any more. He recommends drivers also arm themselves with the increasing number of Twitter traffic updates from news outlets and municipal fire, police transit and transportation departments.
Faye Lyons, spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association, would like to see information given even more directly through more overhead message boards that provide traffic updates on the road.
If this prescription of an information onslaught is disappointing to drivers who would prefer to think less about traffic, not more, Mr. Brady concedes that there aren’t many alternatives.
“There was a huge program of road widening in the 1980s and 1990s in the suburbs,” says Mr. Brady. “But that city property has been used up.”
Which leads Mr. Brady to the limits of city control. He points to a graph showing that, at the peak of morning rush hour, roughly 20,000 more cars per hour are entering Toronto than driving out.
It’s this regional reality of traffic that leads Ms. Lyons of CAA to qualify her general support of Metrolinx, a six-year-old provincial body charged with spurring transportation progress above the municipal level. “Traffic is absolutely getting worse. We need to build infrastructure for the future. [Metrolinx]could be more vocal about what needs to be done.”
Metrolinx does have a 25-year Big Move plan, but considering the back seat the body is taking in the current debate over expansive versus expensive rapid transit in suburban Toronto, even supporters such as Ms. Lyons are underwhelmed by what they see as a tepid approach to an overheating problem.
When all the charts have been put away, Mr. Brady admits to a hope that some day the collective pain that is commuting will be addressed with enough regional investment to offer commuters alternatives to the current model of single-occupant gridlock that fills any available space.
To make his case, Mr. Brady suggests a two-minute survey of vehicles coming north on Bayview. Only two vehicles had more than two occupants, and one of those was a fire truck. Fortunately, it wasn’t in a hurry.
Special to The Globe and Mail