Every week (or so), two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
Background photo by imuttoo from the from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
London’s congestion charge was introduced in February 2003. The initial charge was £5, but as of July 2005 it costs £8 (roughly $18.25) each weekday to drive a car into the 22 sq km congestion zone in central London. From some perspectives, the charge has been incredibly successful. The total number of cars entering the congestion zone is down about 30%, use of public transportation and cycling are up. At the same time, however, many businesses have reported drops in sales and increased costs for things like deliveries.
London isn’t the only city with a congestion charge. Singapore has long had a charge. Oslo has one. Stockholm had a trial run with a congestion charge in 2006 and the Swedish government has announced that the charge will return permanently this year. Other major cities, including New York, are considering it, but is a congestion charge right for Toronto? We’ve talked at some length about this issue earlier this week, but it’s time to examine both sides in greater detail.
In the future, congestion charges in large cities will be the rule rather than the exception. This is the one of the most effective tools we have to keep cities from choking on their own success. A congestion charge is such a good idea for Toronto, it’s no wonder that we haven’t done it yet. We fight good ideas so well, it’s almost like we have a natural immunity to them.
Let’s face it: anything that will start to get people out of their cars is a step in the right direction. Of course, a congestion charge, by itself, is not the whole answer. Part of the solution has to be more bike lanes and better police enforcement of the rights of cyclists. Another part of the solution is better transit, including a fully integrated pan-GTA transit strategy. But, no matter how easy you make it for people to choose a better way, no matter how many carrots you put out there, for some people you still need to have a stick. A tax on driving your car into the city, even a small one, would force people to at least start thinking about the way they commute. Right now, a lot of people don’t think at all, they just hop in their car because that’s the easiest thing to do.
It’s starting to seem like every other summer day in Toronto is a smog alert day, but this is not just about the quality of the air we breathe or even global warming. This is about our overall quality of life. Traffic congestion affects us all in numerous ways. A city that is in constant gridlock is not a great place to live and it’s not a great place to do business either. If there were fewer cars on the road, the people and businesses that really needed to use the roads would be able to get where they need to go much quicker. Deliveries will be easier. Life, in general, would be better. After the implementation of the congestion charge in London travel times dropped at much as 50%.
It’s fine to say that the TTC should provide better service to outlying areas, but with so many people opting out of the system, the TTC is under constant strain just to maintain its current level of service, let alone expand. In London, revenues from the congestion charge are directed into the city’s transit system by law. That should also be the case here. In fact, in order to underline the point about transit, the congestion charge should be about the same as two one-way TTC rides: $5.50. That will help people get the point: You can take the TTC (or drive to a GO station and park), or you can pay the full TTC fare for the right not to take transit. You should have to pay for the privilege of inconveniencing the rest of us by driving your car downtown.
There is a whole segment of the population out there who think that transit is not their problem. They don’t take it and they don’t know anyone who does. They drive to work, they drive their kids to soccer practice, they drive whenever they want and never give it a second thought. It’s time to kick those people in the ass.
The motive for a congestion charge is a splendid one – such a law would, so the argument goes, reduce traffic congestion and pollution, encourage transit use, and in general make everything just dandy for everybody.
There’s only one problem – it won’t work, and it could make things much, much worse.
Toronto, alas, is not Singapore or London. London is the unchallenged business capital of the UK, and surrounded by protected greenspace unsuitable for development. Singapore is an island nation with very limited land resources and a superb public transportation system, meaning that most big business is centralized downtown, and it’s easy to getting there.
Relatively speaking, our public transportation system sucks. While it’s pretty easy to get around if you’re in the center of the city, commuting downtown from the outlying suburbs without a car can be a multi-vehicle, multi-hour exercise in urban masochism. Even GO Transit, a decent system if you happen to live on one of the main lines and travel during peak periods, couldn’t round up sufficient crew to run all their trains the day after New Years. Making the downtown more expensive to drive to would penalize thousands of workers who realistically have no other practical way of getting there.
The second problem is that Toronto is surrounded by sprawling built-up regions which continue to devour farmland voraciously, and which are characterized by abundant parking, low taxes, and civic authorities eager to draw businesses away from Toronto. Politicians like Mississaguas’ wildly popular 700 year old mayor Hazel McCallion, dismissing the detail that the uber-suburb to the west has been sucking at Torontos’ swollen teat for generations, are delighted to siphon off businesses, workers and tax revenues from the core of the GTA, regardless of the consequences for the region as a whole.
These two issues combined mean that a congestion charge in the current environment would just be another nail in the coffin of the vibrant downtown that makes Toronto such a great place to live. In the current state of affairs, rather than improving public transit and decreasing pollution, the fee would just be another means of shifting cars, drivers, shoppers, and businesses out to the great wide open where public transit is largely used only by the poor and the infirm. The greater good would surely not be served.
The answer? Give regional public transit the money and the planning that it deserves. Stop the feds and the province from favouring the outlying regions over Toronto when it comes to taxation. Give people reasons to come downtown, and a multitude of ways to get there. Then think about a congestion charge.