If there’s one thing all Torontonians can agree on, it’s that gridlock is a problem. It could be an $11-billion problem every year, in fact, according to CD Howe’s latest report, which I covered in a recent feature. In that piece, I advocated dedicated revenue tools—the sort suggested by Metrolinx, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. They would help raise the money needed to fund transit expansion, something the region desperately needs.
But the war on gridlock would be best fought with a double-edged sword. While better transit options will persuade fence-sitters, complacent drivers won’t necessarily make the switch—at least, not without a push.
That’s the idea behind congestion charge zones, like they have in London and Stockholm. In London, drivers pay £10 per day to drive through the downtown core, while Stockholm’s fees vary depending on the time of day: rush hour is the costliest, but evenings are free. In both cities, cameras snap licence plates and billing is automated. In London, your payment is due the next day; in Stockholm, you have until the end of the month.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Torontonians would never go for it. But consider how Stockholm battled popular resistance. In 2006, the congestion zone began as a seven-month pilot project and a disapproval rating of 75%. Then something happened: traffic fell 22%. After the trial ended, it returned to normal. When asked for their opinion again, a slim majority voted the congestion zone into law.
Indeed, research has shown that building new roads doesn’t usually help with congestion unless you charge them for it. As Ben Dachis, author of the CD Howe study, explained to me, “When you increase the capacity of something without changing the price, demand usually just fills up that additional capacity.”
It’s easy to imagine how this would play out in Toronto. The region grows by roughly 100,000 new people every year. It wouldn’t take long to fill new roads. What Toronto needs, therefore, is a shift in the percentage of people taking transit. As it stands, 70% of Greater Toronto Area residents drive to work. Faced with unrelenting population growth, the only way to ease Toronto’s gridlock is to push that percentage down considerably.
The image below, taken by the Cycling Promotion Fund in Canberra, Australia, is a potent illustration of just how much less space transit riders take up than drivers. That one bus can carry as many people as all those cars.
As regular Canadian Business contributor Peter Shawn Taylor pointed out, we pay for almost everything we consume, and the more we consume, the more we pay—except when it comes to roads. If it’s a question of fairness, then, a congestion charge zone seems perfectly justified. If it’s a question of economics, realize this proposition is a simple, tried-and-true one: if you want people to do something less, charge them more for it.
Of course, Toronto would need better transit infrastructure to handle increased ridership. Stockholm, for example, added more buses and bike lines when it first introduced its congestion zone. As it stands, Toronto’s subways already reach capacity at rush hour; riders pack into trains like sardines, while others are left waiting for the next one. That’s why we need to prioritize proposals such as the downtown relief line, an alternative downtown subway line that would help ease transit congestion; we also need to make streetcars more viable by giving them dedicated roads, like King Street; and, yes, we need more bike lanes.
Our nation’s leading city used to have a reputation for being ahead of the curve. Toronto built the first subway in Canada, and that was back when it was still smaller than Montreal. There’s that famous quote by Peter Ustinov: “Toronto is New York run by the Swiss.” These days, it’s hard to say with a straight face. Sure, the city has risen in prominence, but if Toronto wants to regain its reputation for efficiency, we need to think big. Introducing North America’s first congestion charge zone would be a bold start.