Public Works: Congestion Zones
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Public Works: Congestion Zones

Hey, remember that time we talked about congestion charges to reduce traffic, and then we elected Rob Ford instead? Maybe it's time to revisit our decisions.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by {a href=""}Daily Grind Photography{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr pool{/a}.

Traffic jams are a universal problem in modern cities. And although a little gridlock remains preferable to older types of urban annoyances, like the bubonic plague or axe-wielding Vikings, that’s cold comfort when you’re stuck in an immobile mess of gleaming, steaming road rage.

Everyone knows that more efficient public transit is part of the solution to unpacking the roads, and if we could sprinkle the magic subway dust and build a comfortable capacious rocket from Whitby to Waterloo, we’d do it. But we can’t, and we don’t.

Transit is an expensive carrot, but there are also stick-based solutions.

Back in 2010, Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller recommended that Toronto consider road tolls and congestion fees on motorists as part of the province’s climate-change strategy. The recommendation was ignored by the Liberal government, who would soon set about de-popularizing themselves through budgetary austerity and wasn’t about to ruffle any new feathers. The suggestion was even more ignored by soon-to-be-elected Mayor Rob Ford, for whom all roads lead to more, bigger roads.

Other cities with congestion charges have seen considerable success.

Back in 2004, London, England instituted a fee for drivers entering a 22-square-kilometre area of the city core during the busiest times of day. Originally £5 ($8), it will now set you back £9 ($14) to motor through the affected zones (with a variety of add-ons or discounts depending where you live, what you drive, and how you pay).

The plan was remarkably successful. Within a year, the number of cars entering the zone had dropped by 27 per cent [PDF], with about half of the trips shifting to public transport (sadly for Gord Miller’s climate dreams, there was no accompanying decline in pollution, in part because airborne contaminants have little regard for arbitrary boundaries.)

It also raises revenue for the city (£148 million in the fiscal year of 2009–10), which by law is allocated directly to other transportation initiatives.

London is arguably the most famous example, but Singapore did it first. The government there realized early on that as an island city with little room to expand outwards and a burgeoning driving class, traffic chaos was going to be an issue. In 1975, Singapore put into place zone-based fees. In 1998, this evolved into the more sophisticated Electronic Road Pricing program, which automatically charges different fees for different roads depending on day and time.

The Singapore congestion fees operate within a complex traffic management ecosystem of rules around vehicle ownership and well-integrated public transit, so it’s trickier to attribute specific outcomes to the charges alone. However, following the implementation of ERP, traffic in the zone dropped 24 per cent and average speeds rose from 30–35 kilometres per hour to 40–45 km/h.

But would congestion zones work here? After all, Toronto bucks enviro-trends by tearing up bike lanes, and our police routinely berate pedestrians for getting in the way of cars.

But those are cultural and political preferences, and have little to do with what the city needs and what would work. As it stands, the cost of gridlock is spread across all taxpayers, when it could be geared towards those principally responsible for creating it.

A case frequently made against congestion charges is that another fee would drive that great amorphous entity, “business,” out of the city and into the seductive embrace of the suburbs, where the great SUVs still roam free and the streets are paved with parking lots.

This is a fallacy. Toronto has the kind of density that businesses want and need, and a transit system that, while badly in need of upgrading, is quite effective in the core area. Head offices and hipsters alike pay to be here, because Toronto has the vibrancy and efficiency of a real city, not a strip mall on steroids.

Congestion pricing can’t happen quickly; it’s not a matter of velvet ropes and fee-collecting bouncers along the fringes of downtown. Any plan to be implemented would have to be a unique Toronto solution, and would require considerable research and review. But that’s the kind of thing we can and should be doing, because the evidence shows it could be just the ticket.