Taming the Traffic Congestion Beast

Transportation Infrastructure for Smarter Cities

Congestion has become the new reality for those living in ever-evolving metropolises of this country. Population increase in cities is a sure sign of essential economic growth, competitiveness and prosperity. Cities such as Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, have become attractive places to live, work and play for both amenities and cultural diversity. But it takes forethought in planning to ensure the sustained attractiveness of such communities.
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According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 census of metropolitan areas, eighty-two percent of Canadians are urban dwellers for those cities of more than 90,000. This statistic most likely will increase to eighty-eight percent by 2050 according to the census.

Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto are among this country’s largest cities and although city living is enticing, cities such as these can expand beyond their infrastructure capacity. This will become a lingering and growing problem if effective initiatives are not implemented. Congestion, specifically heavy traffic and gridlock, diminishes the much sought after quality of life and health of a city and also leads to decreased productivity, loss of competitiveness and environmental concerns in the form of greenhouse gases emissions.

Congestion imposes a tremendously stressful inconvenience when it translates into increased commute times. In fact, for large cities, if one was to find the sum time that every driver spent in gridlock, it would be as many as 10,000 years annually, according to a report released in 2017 by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

This is a concern for residents and businesses that rely on efficient and timely transportation systems. This, in turn, broadens into a larger concern for the whole of the Canadian economy, if not appropriately addressed.

But there may be some relief for the traffic dilemma, particularly in Toronto, which has this country’s most heavily used highway artery − the 401 − pass through the city. According to a Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) report, there are long-term plans in place to at least tame the traffic beast, and Mayor John Tory is devoted to this cause.

“I am going to keep at this traffic issue every day that I hold this office,” Mayor Tory told reporters in September 2017. “We’re going to keep bringing new measures in to try to move this city better.”

Toronto has made progress in the form of past traffic management strategies developed through the city’s Roundtable on Gridlock and Traffic Congestion, the Downtown Transportation Operations Study, a Congestion Management Plan and Toronto’s Official Plan.

Six initiatives are being considered which include extending a pilot project from 2017 that proved to be effective and involved deploying police officers to manage traffic flow at recognized bottlenecks in the city. The mayor noted that changes to Ontario’s Traffic Act now enable authorized traffic wardens, rather than police officers, to monitor both car traffic and pedestrians at the city’s busiest intersections and, possibly, around construction areas. This measure (Traffic 2.0) is to be initiated early this year.

Another pilot project launched in November 2017 involves installing ‘smart’ traffic signals at some major intersections across the city. It is an attempt to update the city’s traffic signal infrastructure which has been in place since the early 1990s. This pilot project will compare two technologies – InSync and Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) – to assess their effectiveness. After one year, one of them will be developed for future implementation.

The two systems have live communication between signals to synchronize traffic flow by adjusting signal timing accordingly. “The city is finally moving into the twenty-first century and embracing technology that can improve traffic,” Mayor Tory said in a press release last November. “Over the last three years, we have finally focused on fighting traffic in Toronto and improving commute times. I am determined to build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight each and every day.”

As part of the solution, last year, Toronto’s joined forces with Waze, a navigation application that was launched in 2006 and I used not only in growing cities in North America but in numerous cities worldwide. Toronto is Canada’s nineteenth city to adopt the app and has close to 560,000 users in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The city aligned with Waze for its ability to provide real-time traffic data which gives users the information to plan their routes around the city, avoiding such things as road closures, construction zones or accidents.

When speaking with reporters, both Mayor Tory and Waze Canada’s manager, Michael Wilson, indicated that this partnership was at no cost to either the city or Waze. Wilson said that, ‘Having the most accurate navigation information in Waze can only help create a better navigation experience for everyone on the roads.”

Currently, there are two rapid response teams or quick clear squads, assigned to clear downtown roads and main arteries such as the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, of vehicles blocking traffic flow. These teams are dispatched by the city’s traffic operation centre to locations where there are known lane blockages. These teams will be fully operational by 2018 during rush hours and on the weekends.

“The bottom line is that we have to get them cleared out,” Mayor Tory said in a news conference in early November. He suggested that such impediments not only disrupt traffic, but they also pose a safety issue.

Utility companies such as the city’s hydroelectric, gas and telecommunications companies will be asked to conduct all non-emergency projects requiring lane closures during non-peak hours – from 7pm to 7am. Such activities during peak business hours lead to traffic disruptions and must now be a thing of the past according to Mayor Tory. “We are going to be sending the message loud and clear: this kind of emergency work cannot take place any longer during the day,” he has been noted as saying.

And lastly, the city will be looking at increasing fines for traffic-blocking offences. Rush-hour route enforcement has been launched by the Toronto Police Services to prevent gridlock, particularly in the city’s downtown core.

For those subjected to traffic jams, particularly on a daily basis, there is no arguing that it can take its toll on both physical and mental health; job security and choice; safety and, more importantly, quality of life.

But also to be considered are detrimental factors such as decreased air quality. It is no surprise that vehicles are one of a city’s greatest sources of air pollution. Slow moving or idling vehicles produce more pollution than vehicles travelling at highway speeds while increasing fuel costs and noise pollution.

Investing heavily in and encouraging the use of public transit may solve part of the problem, especially if employers provide incentives for those who use such means of transportation. But the reality is that most do not want to give up the comfort of their own vehicle, whatever the cost.

Perhaps rising fuel costs will help with the decision, but for now, foresight will remain the most effective tool in keeping our cities moving in the most efficient way. Toronto, along with other large cities in this country, needs to remain devoted to the cause.

Industry Changemakers

The construction industry has historically been slow to evolve, drawn to tradition over technology. As the industry is in a state of rapid innovation and advancement, organizations like the Toronto Construction Association (TCA) are working tirelessly to build strong member businesses that won’t fall behind.

June 16, 2019, 1:48 PM EDT