Boredom is the most universal of traffic's downsides; it's nowhere close to being the most costly or socially deleterious.
Our rapidly aging network of roads and bridges is chock-a-block with vehicles. It's getting worse; congestion is no longer just a big-city problem. The ramifications – billions of dollars in squandered productivity, millions of tons of greenhouse gases, untold sums spent on crumbling infrastructure – touch us all.
Prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to spend about $150-billion on a national infrastructure program. All well and good, but improving mass transit or building roads isn't the whole answer.
That's where Canada's Ecofiscal Commission comes in. This group of economists from across the country – buttressed by an advisory board of environmentalists, business leaders, politicians and government mandarins – has a solution: congestion pricing.
The commission's 59-page report can be distilled to this: The idea of road tolls isn't getting a sufficient public airing but is "the missing piece in our cities' transportation puzzles." The authors conclude Canada needs regionally specific measures – what works in Vancouver might not in Montreal – from a grab-bag of distance-travelled charges, higher parking costs and zone-based pricing.
Mainly they argue the current incentives, including fuel taxes, are all wrong: "Essentially, road user fees are too low (usually zero) and do not reflect the public costs of providing the infrastructure. As a result, drivers do not think about each kilometre driven . . . this results in overcrowded roads and sprawling communities."
The authors favour policies with some element of dynamic (or demand-based) and variable (relative to the time of day) pricing to balance competing financial and ecological objectives.
The report doesn't have all the answers, but if the provinces, which control municipalities, and the federal government, which has the cash to fund pilot projects, can at least launch an honest discussion, the policy fixes are at hand.
It won't make anyone popular. In all too many parts of the country, driving somewhere for free and parking at no cost has become something akin to a right.
Change is the topic du jour in federal politics. Here's hoping the appetite for it extends to Canada's car culture.