Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Cities get creative with solutions for traffic congestion woes

A man sits in his illegally parked vehicle (grey car) during rush hour on King Street as cyclists and other vehicles manoeuvre around his stopped car in Toronto

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Faced with maddening amounts of traffic, most of us simply resort to leaning on the horn or unleashing a string of expletives. But as Canadian commute times grow and urban infrastructure gets increasingly overburdened, it may be time for some more progressive tactics.

Around the world, cities have implemented extreme solutions to their congestion woes, from taxes to tolls to cable cars that soar above the vehicle-clogged streets. "I think a lot of the measures are built on the very real assumption that there's no more room to build new stuff," says Tom Vanderbilt, author of the bestseller Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. "So if you can't add capacity, how do you manage the demand?"

Many of these solutions will eventually become standard practice for large municipalities around the world, he believes. There was a time in New York, Mr. Vanderbilt points out, when paying for on-street parking was considered untenable. "Now it's just considered the norm," he said. "I think a lot of these things, the longer the policy is there, the more it will be accepted."

Story continues below advertisement

Tax: Would you pay $30,000 just for permission to buy a car? In Singapore, prospective vehicle owners are required to first obtain a Certificate of Entitlement, which can start at $48,000 in local currency for a small-size automobile. Only a specific number of COEs are released each month, part of government efforts to control the number of cars on its roads. The vehicle entitlement is valid for 10 years from the date of registration of the vehicle and the scheme aims to peg long-term vehicle population growth at 3 per cent a year. Those who cough up for the prohibitively expensive system must also pay registration fees and electronic road pricing, a series of congestion tolls that vary throughout the day according to usage. Some estimate that owning a Honda Civic in Singapore can cost more than $100,000.

Charge: Anyone who takes a cab is used to keeping a close eye on the meter. Some countries are considering a similar metered charge for private car use. A system hooked up to the Internet and GPS would calculate a charge for each trip based on a mileage-based formula that incorporates the car's fuel efficiency. Driving on busy roads would cost more as would travel during rush hour. The Netherlands had planned to implement the system next year, but the policy was shelved when a new government was elected in 2010. Those who support the idea point out that the meters would replace tolls and congestion fees, and would be more equitable because they would be based on usage, not mere car ownership.

Cap and trade: Driving into an urban centre requires a place to park, and so a number of European cities have begun to simply reduce the supply of parking spots within their core. Both Zurich and Hamburg have frozen the existing parking supply in the city centre, and when a new space is built off-street, an on-street space must be removed. These spots are then repurposed as widened sidewalks or bike lanes. In Copenhagen, where parking spots are removed at a rate of about 32 spots per year, traffic has dropped by 6 per cent since 2005, even though car ownership has gone up by 13 per cent. In addition to these cap-and-trade zones, the City of Zurich regulates how much new parking can be added by developers. A new building can only have parking spots if the surrounding roads can absorb the traffic without congestion, and air pollution levels will not be affected.

Reward: It's not unusual for cities to offer incentives for people to turn in their weapons or inefficient appliances. But the city of Murcia, Spain, has asked people to turn in their cars. To ease traffic congestion, the city offered lifetime passes to its new tram system to anyone who turned in their car – assuming it was fully paid off, of course. The city then put the cars that were traded in on display around the city, slowly disassembling them over time or piling them on top of each other as a commentary about parking shortages.

Fly: Before the 2012 Olympic Games, the city of London will introduce a new transit corridor between sporting arenas. But this one will soar above the city roads, transporting amateur sports fans via a cable-car network intended to reduce traffic during the event. Cable cars are gaining popularity as a transit option after years of use in South America. The city of Jakarta recently announced plans to have a cable car system operating by next year. The city of Medellin, Colombia, first introduced cable cars in 2006 to cut commute times by as much as two hours. The cars are ideal for transporting people over steep or muddy terrain where the construction of roads is difficult, and are generally used to connect poorer neighbourhoods to the downtown core. Brazil's government plans to use the gondolas to connect the sprawling shanty towns to the centre of Rio.

Rotate: Even government rules sound better in Spanish. In Bogota, the phrase "pico y placa" translates to "peak and plate." In layman's terms, it's a traffic mitigation policy created in 2000 by then mayor Enrique Penalosa. The idea behind the rule is to restrict certain vehicles from travelling the streets at certain times. At first, traffic was restricted between 6 and 9 a.m., and then again between 5 and 8 p.m. on weekdays. In 2009, the restriction was extended from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Both public and private vehicles are included in the ban based on the last digit of the licence plate. The numbers restricted each day rotate on an annual basis.

Ban: In March, the European Commission released a white paper outlining its vision for a "Single European Transport Area." Designed to bring about a "profound shift" in how people travel the continent, the document called for a ban on conventionally fuelled cars in city centres by the year 2050. Siim Kallas, of the EU transport commission, said that new taxation on fuel would force people out of their cars and onto alternative transport. "That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres," he said. "Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour." Needless to say, the idea has not been overly popular. The British government has gone so far as to veto the idea, with Norman Baker, U.K. under secretary of state for transportation, saying: "We will not be banning cars from city centres any more than we will be having rectangular bananas."

Story continues below advertisement

Build: In 2008, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company announced its plans to build Masdar City, the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste and, yes, car-free city. With zero carbon emissions from transport within the city, Masdar also plans to facilitate low-carbon journeys to its boundaries through support for public transport and vehicle sharing. Recently, visitors to the development site have been given rides in personal rapid transit vehicles that run on tracks below the city. Each driverless pod is powered by rechargeable lithium-phosphate batteries. Of course, the city, which is designed to house 50,000 residents and 1,500 businesses, is only six square kilometres.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to