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Transport guru says car/transit balance in need of redress

A TTC bus battles traffic on Eglinton Avenue.

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

Martin Wachs hasn't been to Toronto in 30 years, but the veteran transportation expert has numerous local connections. He taught Transportation Services general manager Stephen Buckley, has had former mayor David Miller speak to his class and is friends with architect Barton Myers. This weekend, the senior principal researcher at the RAND Corporation, formerly a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, returned to the city for a conference headlined by Transportation Minister Glen Murray. Monday's Mobility Funding Symposium is co-ordinated by the think tank and lobby group Transport Futures and brings together academics and experts from around the world. Prof. Wachs spoke to The Globe and Mail from California on Thursday.

Congestion is increasingly a hot topic in Toronto. What solutions do you think should be considered?

I want to be careful not to be disrespectful of professionals who work in that city and who know far more than I do. I come more to learn about Toronto than to offer solutions.

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Having said that, many of us in transportation have concluded that the incremental cost and the incremental benefits of major new freeways are probably such that we won't be adding very many more. Over the last 30 or 40 years, we have privileged the automobile in relation to public transport and it's a balance in need of redress. Instead of adding freeway capacity, I think we will be trying to get more efficiency and flow-management.

So our focus on the highway side is more on management than on expansion. And our focus on the transit side would be on management and expansion. And I think that's true in most large North American cities.

What's the message you bring to the Transport Futures symposium?

The U.S. is in an enormous crisis because transport is funded primarily through fuel taxes. Cars are more efficient and produce less revenue. And ultimately we're going to electric vehicles. If fuel is the source of revenue to operate the system, we have to change.

There are two ways we're moving. One is that local governments are asking their voters to approve general taxes for transportation, like sales taxes. In the longer run, we're examining vehicle miles of travel taxes, where we bill people for the use of the road by distance.

The VMT mechanism would enable us to pursue a wider range of public-policy goals. We could charge different rates for different classes of vehicle. We could incentivize the use of electric vehicles by charging less. You can measure how many miles a person travels on a local street, on a major arterial, on a freeway, and you can charge differently. You can charge different rates at different times of day.

It's being very vigorously researched in the U.S., but it's politically still too sensitive.

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Big Brother fears?

If you asked American citizens would they support this, the vast majority say no. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't investigate the technology. People become more comfortable with these concepts when they become familiar with them. There are privacy protections that are quite feasible. It could be a device in your car that calculates and issues the bill, and the government never sees it.

On the topic of efficiency, you've written about autonomous vehicles. How close are we to these?

Two U.S. states allow driverless vehicles on public highways, the result of lobbying by Google, who have been testing them. I think that we'll see autonomous vehicles moving freight, perhaps on exclusive rights-of-way. The vision I have is trains of trucks, where there's a driver in the first one and eight or 10 following at a relatively close distance. We'll probably transition to autonomous vehicles in controlled environments, learn from experience and broaden our applications. The downside is that a system failure could be catastrophic.

This is getting a bit legalistic, but what if I'm in a driverless vehicle and the thing crashes? It's a very thorny question of liability, I would think.

Absolutely. It's those issues more than the technical ones that I think slow the process of adoption.

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