The centre console of Eddie Hawkeswood's minivan is cluttered with stress balls and beanbags. He works them over when traffic starts to squeeze in on him, usually, he says, at "the inevitable Oakville or Milton slowdown."
The 38-year-old freelance sports broadcaster makes the 130-kilometre trek between his home in Woodstock and Toronto two or three times a week. He's not subjected to the so-called rush hours, but congestion is a constant companion.
"It's unbelievable, really, how bad the situation is and the effect it has on us. You're just sitting there. You can't get anything done, you can't exercise, you can't relax," says Hawkeswood. "Misery loves company, and there's too much of both out there."
To his surprise, he's turned to listening to country music and Rush Limbaugh, just to break the monotony.
He expects the beanbags to disintegrate before the drive improves. "There's not much you can do. It's a morass you're stuck in, but there's no redemption."
Redemption. Deliverance from damnation. It's where every commuter wants to end up, but few in the Greater Toronto Area see signs pointing the way. The Toronto Board of Trade ranks the area's in-car commute times as the second-worst out of 12 North American cities, with an average of 66 minutes a day spent fuming away.
On Thursday, a government-appointed advisory panel recommended a five-cent-per-litre hike in the gas tax to help fund public transit expansion in the greater Toronto-Hamilton area.
The City of Toronto's Transportation Services released two reports recently on battling congestion in the downtown core. In the absence of the space or money for new roads as the solution, the reports lean toward technology (to monitor and maximize signal efficiency), enforcement (to crack down on lane and intersection blockers) and increased turning/parking restrictions.
While these are sensible measures to flow traffic more freely, the recommendations concern only a small area, from Bathurst on the western boundary to Jarvis on the east, and from Lakeshore north to Dundas. The problems on the clogged arterial roads and highways are left for another day.
"If we can keep from getting worse while the demand increases, that would be a goal of ours," Myles Currie, director of Toronto's Transportaton Services, told The Globe and Mail.
Reducing lane blockages is one of the report recommendations. Measures include designated courier zones, reduced parking and increased ticketing. The city's recommended fine increase to $150 from $60 for illegally stopping, standing or parking their cars during rush hour is currently before the courts.
But the big gains will come only from widespread, technologically advanced solutions, says Baher Abdulhai, an engineering professor and the director of University of Toronto's Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre. Abdulhai's department has recently developed MARLIN-ATSC, an award-winning system of traffic signal co-ordination designed to reduce wait times at intersections by 40 per cent.
Toronto's modern traffic-light systems date from the early 1990s and include 350 "adaptive" signals, which receive information about congestion from sensors in the road and change their timing accordingly. They can sense a backlog in the northbound lanes and react by shortchanging the east/west traffic. The systems let the signals work in clusters and coordinate or synchronize with each other.
Still, the new and old systems compare like a cellphone and a smartphone, Abdulhai says. The new system uses a self-learning logarithm to provide optimum timing across a complicated network, on a constantly improving grid. Being tested now, the system could be ready for the street within a year, and Currie confirms that it is being considered in the review of Toronto's co-ordinated signal system, which is scheduled for completion in early 2014.
"It's important to give credit. It's a challenging task and they are looking for what's out there. But this is a fast-moving beast," Abdulhai says of technological advance, suggesting the gap between innovation and implementation could be faster.
The province has lately seemed more serious about building a regional transit system. But as for on-road solutions that bring relief in the shorter term, efforts have been mostly limited to improving driver information about road conditions ahead. The anti-congestion steps have related mostly to improving driver information about road conditions ahead (as relayed on electronic COMPASS road signs), metered on-ramps on the eastbound Queen Elizabeth Way (to ensure incoming traffic doesn't overwhelm capacity) and the establishment of 83 kilometres of high occupancy vehicle lanes on Highways 404 and 403, and the Q.E.W.
Asked about future plans, spokesman Ajay Woozageer says the HOV lanes may be expanded. The same lanes might also become open to any drivers that paid a toll to enter.
Abdulhai notes a sharp distinction between this approach and that in the Netherlands, where the government has created a Ministry of Transportation Innovation. "Their job is to close the gap between R and D and implementation. Things go from being conceived, to tested, to implemented in a matter of months."
Meanwhile, Hawkeswood doesn't know how many more years he wants to see disappear into the quicksand of congestion.
He teaches part-time at Fanshawe College in London and is applying for a master's degree in communications so he can potentially switch to full-time.
"I had a promising broadcasting career," says the father of two young boys. "I won a Juno, I was working for Global, but it's not worth it any more to me.
"Time I spend in traffic is time I could be devoting to my family, to DIY projects, to coaching my own kids' sports teams. I only get my boys at any age for a limited amount of time. I don't want to be all wound up and out of shape from too much driving when my kids see me."
PAST TORONTO PROJECTS
1. Queen Elizabeth Way
Widening to eight lanes from six, Guelph Line in Burlington to Trafalgar Road in Oakville, with High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes in both directions ($133.2-million)
2. Queen Elizabeth Way
New interchange connecting the Red Hill Valley Parkway
3. Highway 410
Four-lane extension, Bovaird Drive to Hwy 10
4. Highway 404
HOV lane widening, Beaver Creek to Sheppard Ave.
5. Highway 401
New interchange at Stevenson Rd., resurfacing from Highway 35/115
6. Highway 403
HOV lanes to Hwy 401
7. Highway 401
Widening from Harwood Avenue to Salem Road including a new interchange and median barriers
8. Highway 10
Widening, Forks of the Credit Road to Highway 9
9. Highway 400
Interchange improvements at King Road for future HOV lanes
PROJECTS UNDER WAY IN TORONTO
1. Highway 407 (two phases)
Extension from Brock Rd., Pickering to Highway 35/115 (financed by Infrastructure Ontario/Design Build Finance Maintain)
Cost (est.): $1-billion
2. Highway 401
New interchange construction at Hurontario Street and widening
3. Highway 404
New four-lane highway from Greenlane to Ravenshoe Rd.
Cost: $99.2-million (part of the FLOW agreement with the federal government)
4. Highway 7
Widening of from Brock Rd. to Hwy 12, Brooklin. T
Cost: $64.9-million (FLOW agreement)
Source: Ontario Ministry of Transportation
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