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Transit sign in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Transit sign in Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)


Unlocking the gridlock Add to ...

Equipped with artificial intelligence, Professor Baher Abdulhai’s traffic lights know how to learn.

A project by the University of Toronto professor of civil engineering marries cameras with computers to create traffic lights that can measure vehicle flow, understand what it means, and adapt signal patterns to reduce gridlock.

“We want the traffic light to learn from experience,” explained Prof. Abdulhai, who is principal investigator on the University of Toronto project, dubbed MARLIN, and an expert in intelligent transportation systems (ITS).

“In the Toronto experiment we cut down delays by 40 per cent, on average.”

This work is part of a broader recognition that something has to be done about gridlock that threatens to paralyze the city. Congestion already has drivers here suffering some of the worst commute times in North America and, according to the Toronto Region Board of Trade estimate, is costing the economy $6-billion annually.

The search for solutions has been part of a series of public discussions by Metrolinx, which is seeking ideas for how to fund the next generation of transit expansion. The Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance has also rolled out a lobbying campaign and the city has held public consultations. Next week, the city will ask the public to comment as part of the Downtown Transportation Operations Study, which is looking at ways to improve mobility and safety.

All of these efforts recognize that solutions are overdue. And it’s only going to get worse. With a rising population, an uncertain future for the Gardiner Expressway, the Pan-Am Games expected to bring thousands of people in 2015 and scores of condo buildings under construction, there’s little time to waste.


Of course, traffic isn’t all bad.

“Some congestion is a sign of vibrancy,” says Prof. Abdulhai in the draft of an upcoming report for the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, “but too [much] congestion has many negative consequences. … The good news is that there are plenty of approaches to address congestion, traditional and non-traditional, technical and non-technical.”

The report calls for a mix of increased road capacity, smarter traffic signals and judicious road tolling, acknowledging that the last is a controversial suggestion.

Small steps toward road tolls were among the proposals this week from the local board of trade, which offered political cover to right-wing leaders by suggesting new taxes and fees dedicated to transit.

But solutions aren’t always easy to find at city hall, so The Globe and Mail turned to the experts.

Khandker Nurul Habib, assistant professor in the department of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, stresses that measures targeting congestion must be coupled with demand management, because less traffic will only encourage more people to drive.

“If you remove traffic congestion, demand will [rise],” he said. “If you try to build new roads … there’ll be new demand out there. People who were not driving before will find it easier and faster and will start driving.”

It’s a well-documented phenomenon known as “induced demand” and it explains why expanding road capacity is too often a short-term political solution, although traffic experts are generally too polite to say it.

One way to get around this is to reduce the desirability of driving. This can be done through disincentives such as tolls or taxes that hit motorists. But without alternatives, driving will continue to be what’s known as an inelastic behaviour – people will keep doing it in spite of increasing cost because they have no choice.

“We have to invest in transit,” Prof. Nurul Habib said. “There’s no other way to do it”

This is where Metrolinx comes in. The regional transit agency is devising an investment strategy to fund a slate of expansion plans. They have proposed a network of transit lines throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, a grid-style system that reflects the current reality that not everyone wants to be funnelled into the downtown core.

Most of the projects are not funded, though, and it will be several years, in the most optimistic scenario, before shovels are in the ground on these.

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