Todd Litman is the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization that develops innovative solutions to transport problems. His latest book is New Mobilities: Smart Planning for Emerging Transportation Technologies.
If you ask motorists, “Would you like the government to build new highways to reduce the traffic congestion?” most will answer yes – provided that somebody else foots the bill.
This is how Premier Doug Ford’s proposed Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass projects in Ontario are being framed: as a provincial gift to Greater Toronto Area drivers. Highway 413 would connect York and Halton regions, while Bradford Bypass is intended to link Highway 400 to 404. According to Mr. Ford, these projects will reduce congestion and spur economic growth.
However, there are good reasons to be skeptical. Most people assume that traffic congestion results simply from insufficient road capacity, so the problem can easily be solved by expanding highways. However, no government can afford to build enough road capacity to meet all of the demand, and doing so is inefficient and unfair. Economists recognize that congestion reflects underpricing: Driving is so cheap that it becomes inevitable. You can have free roads or you can have free-flowing traffic, but it is not economically feasible to have both.
A century of experience demonstrates that new urban highways provide only temporary congestion relief, and that by inducing additional vehicle travel, they exacerbate traffic problems overall. Conversely, urban traffic congestion tends to maintain an equilibrium where delays discourage additional peak-period trips. You’ve probably experienced this yourself: When traffic is light, you drive across town to save a few dollars at a big-box store, but if roads are congested, you shop nearby. Likewise, after a new highway is completed, you might consider a home in a more distant community, which fills the added capacity and results in more driving.
So it’s easy to see that the proposed highway projects will not reduce congestion over the long run. They will allow a few thousand automobile commuters to live in urban fringe locations where they drive everywhere, as opposed to central neighborhoods where they can travel by public transit, walking and bicycling. Within a few years, the new link will be congested and dump more vehicles onto existing highways and surface streets, increasing “downstream” traffic problems.
Also, new highways are far more expensive than most people realize, typically costing tens of millions of dollars for each kilometre of lane. Considering land, construction and additional operating expenses, the cost-recovery price for additional highway capacity – the toll required to repay its incremental costs – is typically 50 cents to $2.00 per vehicle-kilometre, far more than what motorists pay in fuel taxes.
As a result, projects such as Highway 413 represent a huge public subsidy to a relatively small number of future users. Although the Ontario government provides no economic analysis, these projects are likely to cost billions of dollars to build and benefit only a tiny portion of Ontario residents. Anybody who will not drive regularly on these new facilities should protest this inequity.
Indeed, it’s time to reorient transportation policies to ensure that everybody benefits. The 20th century was the age of automobile ascendency, during which automobile travel increased and governments spent the majority of transportation infrastructure dollars to serve them. However, current demographic and economic trends – an aging population, and increasing concerns about affordability, public health and environmental concerns – justify shifting resources from urban highway expansions to improving resource-efficient travel modes such as walking, bicycling, ridesharing and public transit, as well as telework.
Rather than invest in highway projects, it would be more efficient and fair to incrementally improve existing roadways and provide better alternatives to driving, which are generally more cost effective, equitable and beneficial overall. These solutions help reduce congestion over the long run and help achieve other community goals.
For example, a rail line or bus lane that offers fast and convenient transit service will attract some commuters out of their cars, reducing highway congestion. Commute-trip reduction programs (which encourage commuters to shift from driving to more resource-efficient modes), decongestion pricing (road tolls that are higher during congested conditions, and lower or free off-peak) and other transportation-demand management strategies reduce traffic problems in ways that provide other economic, social and environmental benefits. Congestion does not disappear, but becomes significantly less than what would otherwise occur, and these solutions reduce consumer costs, crashes and pollution.
Many cities around the world already apply these approaches. For example, Seattle has reduced automobile trips through a combination of public transit improvements and commute-trip reduction programs. New York is redesigning streets to improve walking, bicycling and bus travel. Paris is converting half of its public parking spaces into wider sidewalks and lanes for bikes and buses. The European Union requires towns and cities to develop Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans that identify specific ways to increase transportation system efficiency. These solutions allow cities to accommodate more people and business activity without increasing vehicle traffic, resulting in more efficient, equitable and livable communities.
This is a timely issue. With the current policies in place, ride-hailing services, electric cars and autonomous vehicles are likely to stimulate more vehicle travel and traffic problems. For example, if parking is priced but roads are free, autonomous vehicle owners will rationally program their cars to drive home or continuously circle the block to avoid parking fees. It would be wasteful and unfair to spend billions of dollars on roadway expansions to accommodate this unnecessary additional traffic. We will need new policies that manage roads for efficiency before adding more capacity.
Would the proposed Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass projects be cost effective? Probably not. They will be expensive and do little to reduce long-term congestion. Are they fair? Certainly not. They provide a large subsidy to a small number of motorists. Are they smart? No, by inducing additional vehicle travel these projects would contradict other community goals including affordability, equity, community livability and environmental protection.
Highway planning faces a paradox: Motorists want new capacity, as long as somebody else bears the costs, but if asked to pay directly, demand disappears. Transportation planners can identify much better ways to spend provincial dollars that are more cost effective, fair and consistent with strategic goals. Trust the science.
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