The first day of new regulations meant to ease travel on Toronto roadways for those connected to the Pan Am Games has many commuters fuming, prompting Mayor John Tory to renew his call for the province to relax the rules.
The Ontario government, however, poured cold water on the notion.
Access to High Occupancy Vehicle lanes has been restricted on 235 kilometres of area roads, mostly highways, with the provincial policy coming into force in the early morning hours Monday. Taxis, first responders and private vehicles carpooling are among those that can use these lanes.
"I'm obviously sympathetic to the fact that it has lengthened commute times," Mr. Tory said. He reiterated that the province could help by relaxing the carpool rules from three to two people for the duration of the event.
"I would hope that they might even, after a few days, and it's only the first day, reconsider that," he said.
In a statement Monday evening, however, the Ministry of Transportation made clear there would be no changes.
"Working with Games experts, traffic modelling shows that during the Pan Am Games with 3+ HOV lanes, we can meet those commitments and still keep the region moving for the general public," the statement read in part. "The HOV lanes will then move to 2+ during the Parapan Am Games as there are less venues and athletes participating."
Many commuters were quick to complain Monday that the new lane restrictions put too much pressure on the rest of the roads, leading to aggravating delays. Some drivers said that removing the lane meant the roads were overly full, and quick to get backed up when there were the inevitable collisions or other problems.
But some others were able to find enough people to fill their vehicles and praised the special-access lanes for speeding them up. And police and officials with the city suggested that while there were slowdowns in the regular lanes, they were not dramatic ones.
The restricted lanes are on Highways 401, 404, 427, the Don Valley Parkway, the Gardiner Expressway, the Queen Elizabeth Way, Lake Shore Boulevard and Jane Street. They are in force from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. until Aug. 18. Starting on July 28 the lanes will be open to vehicles with two people.
With 250,000 people expected to descend on Toronto for the Games, the ability to manage traffic will be key. Other Games-related traffic strategies include encouraging a 20-per-cent drop in overall traffic, with a heavy focus on using transit to attend events and urging businesses to allow employee flexibility. Both London and Vancouver exceeded this target when they played host to the Olympic Games.
John Mende, director of transportation services for the city, acknowledged that "it takes a while for people to adjust their habits."
Terry Craig commutes from Hamilton to Toronto. On Monday morning, he didn't have enough people to qualify for the HOV lanes, and he said the drive in was horrible. In the evening, however, he managed to get a third person for his ride back. Carpooling effectively cut his commute time in half, he said.
"It was kind of interesting. We basically made it from Toronto to Hamilton in 45 minutes," Mr. Craig said. "If you have three people, you're very happy. But if you don't have that third person, then it's hell," he said.
The lane restrictions began well before the Games because athletes and officials are already starting to show up and to give locals a chance to get accustomed to the different reality. Another factor may be that, if drivers feel the HOV lanes are causing serious problems, experiencing them repeatedly over this long a lead-time could help persuade people to change their habits.
Some area commuters tried to turn the situation into a chance to make money and, at the same time, speed their journey.
Samantha Borges, who drives in from Oakville to Toronto every morning for work, was one of several who put an ad on Kijiji for passengers. She wanted $20 a week for a space in her car, so she could meet the three-person requirement for a carpool. She had no responses the first day.
"It's cheaper than the GO train, so I thought people would be pumped about that," she said.
"They're just corralling all the one-person commuters to two lanes. It's just messing up all commuters," she added. "I'm just waiting for the [Games] to be over until it's out of the way."
OPP Sergeant Kerry Schmidt said that traffic looked Monday like "a typical rush hour," adding that it would normally have been down a bit because of the holiday this week. Police were out in force looking for violators using the lanes inappropriately, he added, and people seemed generally to be following the rules.
"I can see the HOV lane moving much more freely than the other lanes," he said Monday evening.
Deputy mayor Pam McConnell acknowledged that road restrictions can be "a stress for everybody," but that the cost has to be balanced against the benefit.
"It is a real opportunity for our city to celebrate these great athletes," she said. "I think it's really important for all of us to kind of move over and make sure that these games are a success."