There’s another way to fight Toronto’s gridlock—if we’re willing to be bold

A congestion charge zone would encourage more drivers to leave the car at home.


Where would you draw the borders for a congestion charge zone in Toronto?

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.

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5 comments on “There’s another way to fight Toronto’s gridlock—if we’re willing to be bold

  1. Bad move.
    You will lock out the business hub of Canada, which will result in isolation. Business will take place with insiders only inside the area and only outsiders outside the area.
    You have to improve and integrate transit and parking first, so it’s not a userous cash grab if ppl have to go from outside to inside.
    The best hospitals are inside the zone as well. So if you can pay the zone fees you can have medical care?
    Toronto is NOT LONDON by along shot, I should know London is my 2nd home. There are many things Ontario/Toronto can and should do first before holding ordinary citizens from the rest of the province up for ransom.
    The subway should be debentured over 25 years. The building is a capital item, not an expense item. It benefits the rest of the province and the rest of Canada and we shold be prepared to contribute.
    The message you are sending to places outside of Toronto including rural Ontario is that you don’t want us or our business in your city.

    • I love how you are quick to point out that Toronto is the “business hub of Canada” and how entitled everyone in Canada feels about Toronto, yet wait for it’s demise.

      First, people have a choice to live in 416 or 905. People choose 905 over 416 for more “bang for their buck”, yet they feel entitled to practically live in 416 for work 5 days out of the week. and use their infrastructure, waste systems, etc. However, 416 residents who are paying more “bang for their buck” to live near the best hospitals and schools are being penalized. How is that fair?

      Not to mention, people who choose to live in 416 get taxed double land transfer tax for choosing to do so.

      No, Toronto is not London (or New York for those out there who wish they were American) but as you initially pointed out, Toronto is the business hub of Canada. You are more than welcome to go live in your 2nd home…but nope, you CHOOSE to live in Toronto. Or wait, did you CHOOSE to live in 905 and just work in 416?

      As per the growth of business, I have to admit, I did not study economics as much as I wished. But, wouldn’t it be safe to say that where there are people, especially in this consumer age, there will be commerce? So wouldn’t it be better to preach “Live where you Play. Play where you Work”? Yet, I live in the core for that reason, and during rush hour it can take up to an hour to get from Yonge and Bloor to the Lakeshore….why? Because everyone feels entitled.

      Thank you Suburban dweller!

      Your Counterpart,
      The Urbanite

  2. Check out what they do in the City of London England. They have 3
    zones in the inner London area and high costs the closer you get to the centre of London works well. |People use the tubes and buses to ease traffic

  3. Pingback: Trevor Melanson » Blog Archive » Toronto, immigration and the Vancouver tech scene

  4. Why do we keep trying to put more people into Toronto. Maybe the approach is what needs rethinking. With all of the IT options currently available and with future developments to come in this regard, why focus on moving people? Encourage more people to work from home for part, or all, of their work week and formulate policies to support world leading internet services at affordable costs for all.