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Why traffic congestion is driving Toronto crazy

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

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

This is not to say that commuting in Toronto can't or shouldn't be improved. Research from the U.S. indicates that people consider 16 minutes each way to be the ideal commute time. And with Toronto the economic hub of the province, making the flow of people and goods as efficient as possible is essential.

But if the majority of Toronto commuters are travelling each day roughly the same amount of time as have people for hundreds of years, why has the feeling that traffic here is awful taken on such strength as to become a top election issue?

There are a number of possibilities.

It's not the distance, it's the stress
With due respect to Marchetti, a half-hour behind the wheel is not the same in every situation. Research shows that congestion can sharply increase the unhappiness of a driver, even if the total trip time is the same as for another person who was able to avoid traffic jams.

"Workers who experience traffic congestion for more than three times a week report significantly higher level of stress than those subject to infrequent congestion," according to a paper co-written by Ryerson University associate professor Murtaza Haider, director of the school's Institute of Housing and Mobility.

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The research found that people reporting congestion more than three times a week were 18.6 per cent more likely to be stressed than those facing congestion less often. Significantly, Statistics Canada figures from 2010 showed that 29 per cent of Toronto workers were caught in traffic jams every day.

The psychology of traffic
Uncertainty makes driving feel worse, says York University professor David Wiesenthal, who has studied narcissistic tendencies among drivers, aggressive driving and how stress affects drivers. Without confidence in knowing how long their trip will take, people often don't know whether they will make an appointment, get to work on time or keep someone waiting. And that makes them rattled.

This dovetails with the theories by business consultant and former Harvard professor David Maister that "anxiety makes waits seem longer" and "uncertain waits [seem] longer than known, finite waits," according to his paper on the psychology of waiting.

"There's a whole literature that says that if you have a perception at least of being able to control things, you're less stressed," says Dr. Wiesenthal. But traffic problems instead can feed a sense of helplessness.

The daycare factor
Women entering the work force in greater numbers had two major effects on commuting patterns. The most obvious is that there were more people on the roads. But another change was that errands that might normally have been done by the stay-at-home parent were often tacked on to the drive home. People who study traffic call this "trip-chaining."

"Our analysis does indeed show that having to drop off and pick up children during the commute between home and work is associated with an increase in the travel time," Statscan's Martin Turcotte wrote in a 2005 report.

Although these additional errands are not an inherent part of the commute, they do make it longer. And the delays caused by these stops can add up fast. The additional time required to drop off children at daycare – not including the time stopped – was pegged at about 10 minutes each way. Other errands would be expected to extend the commute by 18 minutes, not including the time stopped.

A fact of life
Still, congestion is a reality of life – and not just modern life.

In The Inferno, Dante refers to early-14th-century crowding in Rome so bad that pedestrians on a bridge were organized by destination, and each group kept to its own section. A traffic jam on New York's Lower Broadway snarled movement for five hours – in 1879 – according to the Tom Vanderbilt book Traffic. And there are photos from two generations ago that show long traffic backups in the United States.

The glory days of commuting, when gas was cheap and highways were new and underused, were an exception to most of history. Even now, trying to recreate that time by expanding road capacity – Councillor David Shiner has argued for building new levels onto existing highways – would be a short-term solution at best. Because of the phenomenon of induced demand, through which new or improved road capacity attracts more drivers, expanded roads are typically filled up in less than a decade.

Barring economic collapse, congestion is here to stay. But faced with the anger of vocal drivers, don't expect any candidate to admit to that.

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What commuters have to say

Doug Davis
Route:
Mr. Davis lives in King West and drives to Yonge and Bloor. Mr. Davis says his route changes depending on things such as construction and whether or not there's a Toronto Blue Jays game since his house is only a few blocks away from Rogers Centre.
Estimated time each way: Mr. Davis says his drive can take between 35 to 40 minutes during rush-hour traffic, but during a time of day without heavy traffic, he's done the drive in about 12 minutes.
He says: "I think, you know, it's like, why is there no co-ordination in terms of construction? One day there's construction on this street so I take another street, but it has construction on it, too. Why isn't there the preplanning? We shouldn't have construction on these two streets on the two times. That makes me crazy. How much thinking ahead is there in terms of planning?"

Lauren Bridle
Route:
Ms. Bridle lives in Lawrence Park and spends her summers working at the Outer Harbour Marina. She says while she could take the Don Valley Parkway, she avoids it "at all costs." She says she prefers to take the Bayview Extension to Dundas, and then takes Dundas to Leslie, but has had to mix up her drive now that Queen and Leslie is closed.

Estimated time each way: Ms. Bridle says she leaves her home between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and heads back from work around 4 p.m. At these peak times, she says it can take her up to an hour to get where it would normally take her 15 or 20 minutes. She says the construction at Leslie and Queen is adding at least 15 minutes to her drive.
She says: "I grew up in Toronto and I lived in New York before this so I'm used to the big cities and the traffic. It's kind of just something that comes with living here. I would take the subway if I could, but because of where I work, it's not very accessible by buses or anything, so it's like a 20-minute walk to the closest bus stop. Since I have a car, that's ridiculous."

Greg McLelland
Route:
Mr. McLelland travels from Oakville to Yonge and Bloor every day. He says he normally takes the GO Train and subway, but drives in once a week when he has meetings scheduled in other parts of town from where he normally works. He says a large part of that drive, normally, is taking the Gardiner Expressway,
Estimated time each way: On those days Mr. McLelland drives in, he says it can take him up to an hour. Since the Gardiner's been reduced to two lanes each direction, it's "doubling people's commutes."
He says: "It's crazy. I actually drove in for whatever reason this week, the first day [the Gardiner] was closed and it was absolutely crazy. It was like I left here at 6:30 at night and it took me an hour and 45 minutes to get home. It's doubling people's commutes. I won't be driving my car ever until this is done. I've noticed that my train's more busy since."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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