Andrew Coyne: The real solution to traffic congestion? Road tolls

National Post columnist Andrew Coyne highlights CPI’s recent study on the Downtown Relief Line.

This article originally appeared in the National Post and was also circulated in the Montreal Gazette

These days in Toronto you can’t move for all the multi-billion-dollar transit plans. Some are being built. Most are being talked about — mostly by politicians on the make. Every mayoral candidate has a transit plan, and so does every provincial party leader.

They differ wildly on the particulars — whether to build subways or light rail, following which route, etc. — but in the broad strokes they are all the same. They would all take years to build. They would all cost vast amounts of money. And they would all be funded, at least in part, by somebody else: some other level of government, some other group of taxpayers, anyone but the people being asked to vote for them. Oh, and one more: they are all justified in the name of fighting congestion — the traffic that now consumes the city and its environs morning, noon and night.

Perhaps it is the same where you live. Congestion has risen to the top of the political agenda in many of Canada’s largest cities. Toronto’s isn’t even the worst. The latest annual study by the in-car navigation software company TomTom puts Vancouver at the head of the pack nationally: Traffic delays add 35% to the average trip time there over what it would be in free-flow — 70% during rush hour. But Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa are not far back, in the mid-to-high 20s. What would otherwise be a 30-minute drive to work in these cities typically takes closer to an hour.

And everywhere the answer pitched to a suffering electorate is: more transit. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, for example, is running for re-election on a plan to “cut congestion” by building a new subway line out to the University of British Columbia, at a cost of $3-billion. A new light rail line is proposed, at similar expense, for Ottawa. And so on.

It’s a lovely idea. Everybody likes public transit. It’s clean, it’s green, it puts us in touch with our fellow citizens. It’s a marvellous way to carry large numbers of people about at low cost. We should certainly build more of it, where its marginal benefit exceeds its marginal cost. But the idea that simply adding another subway or light rapid transit line is going to cure congestion, or even make much of a dent in it, is pure fantasy.

Have a look at that TomTom table again, this time for Europe. Among the worst congested cities on the list you will find some of those with the most admired transit systems. Moscow’s subway, for example, is often rated the world’s best: 40 trains every hour, leaving with metronomic regularity from the sumptuous palaces the Soviets built for stations. Yet delays due to congestion in the city run to 74%, on average. Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin all have worse congestion problems than Toronto. Yet they are blessed with transit networks of a scope and quality that Canadian cities can only dream of.

Of course, traffic would doubtless be even worse in these cities without their magnificent transit systems; probably more transit would be of some help here, too. But it’s evidently not enough on its own, and it’s far from clear the added benefit is worth the added cost. No matter how much new transit you build, for starters, you are not going to persuade more than a small minority of drivers to give up their cars: the advantages in comfort, convenience, and above all speed are just too great. Across the country, upwards of 80% of Canadians drive to work, a number that has not changed in decades.

Against the numbers that are persuaded to switch, moreover, must be set the number of new drivers added to the population. Toronto’s proposed $3-billion (there’s that number again) Downtown Relief subway line, for example, is projected/hoped to take at most 5,000 cars off the roads at any given time, most of them suburban commuters, when finished — 17 years from now. Great. The population of the Greater Toronto Area is expected to grow by nearly two million between now and then. (It’s not even clear the DRL is the best way to reduce congestion on the subway. Since this is mostly a peak-hour problem, why not just drop the price on the existing lines in off hours, as a new study by the Consumer Policy Institute* suggests?)

Third, and most fundamental: if you do manage to take some cars off the road, what does that mean? It means traffic flows faster. And what does the research show happens when traffic moves faster? People drive more. Right now we ration road space through time: the price of using the roads is the time spent waiting in traffic. The practical effect of adding new transit is the same as building new roads — it reduces the time-price of driving. As with anything else, when you reduce the price, people consume more of it.

If cities are serious about congestion, there’s only one real solution: replace the time-price of driving with an economic price, one that allocates scarce road space to those who put the highest value on the roads rather than those who put the lowest value on their time. Besides being much quicker to implement, road tolls have the added advantage of instantly making transit more competitive: not by subsidizing transit, but by taking the subsidy out of private car use. But so long as the roads remain unpriced, congestion will remain a serious and growing problem, and all the transit in the world isn’t going to fix it.

Alas, the very thing that make tolls work — their transparency — make them anathema to politicians. Why ask drivers to pay the real costs of using the roads, when you can promise grand far-off transit schemes you won’t be around to use and that someone else will pay for?

* I am a director of Energy Probe, with which the CPI is affiliated.


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