Environment Governance Innovation Population Transportation

Why focus should be on mass transit instead of tolls to relieve traffic congestion, part two

Map 1 Usually take public transit to work
Map 2 Usually vehicle passenger to work
Map 3 Usually drive vehicle to work

Source(s): 2006 Census (20% sample) topic-based tabulations

As previously discussed, variable-rate tolling as a means of moderating traffic congestion in Canada makes little sense. Unable to cite relevant research to support its “toll everything everywhere” proposal, the recent paper from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission (CEC) instead turned to reviewing anecdotal evidence from the USA, Canada and Sweden.

Notably, the Canadian examples referenced were Toronto and Calgary. As previously mentioned, the CEC conceded Toronto’s 407 ETR did not work as intended. The Calgary example, along with one from San Francisco, of a variable-rate parking scheme, has neither proven effective nor popular. Another example, of a distance-traveled toll scheme in Oregon, likewise neither proven effective nor popular (and highlights an important privacy issue). 4 of the 6 anecdotes CEC could come up with were ineffective and unpopular.

Why tolling doesn’t work

The CEC report goes on to briefly review the infrastructure investments in Canada’s major urban centres before proceeding to recommend they all toll everything everywhere. Its review of Montréal notes:

“Despite local opposition to the planned toll on the new Champlain Bridge, the two new bridge tolls on Autoroutes 25 and 30 are well used (with one using time-varying pricing).”

For context, the referenced tolls on Autoroute 25 were a recent ‘concession’ a private firm received for building a bridge extending the highway. While traffic on the bridge has increased since it started operating in 2011, there’s no evidence that it has relieved traffic congestion on other bridges connecting Laval to Montréal. In fact it has  created more congestion on Notre Dame Street East, which will require further investments in road infrastructure by the city and province to alleviate.

Which underscores an important point critics of ever-expanding road infrastructure frequently make: Simply building more roads and bridges, tolled or otherwise, will not solve traffic congestion problems long term. It only serves to either create new bottlenecks or exacerbate existing ones.

The solution is more efficient use of existing road infrastructure and more effective urban planning going forward.

Exacerbating the single-occupant car problem

The problem is that for the latter half of the twentieth century, both in the USA and Canada, the car was king. The focus on building out road infrastructure enabled urban sprawl. This in turn allowed for the current situation where suburban residents living up to a hundred kilometres away from a major central business district regularly commute to work there by car. It’s not so much a matter of preference as a matter of having little other choice.

In this regard, Montréal – with an urban area the size of Toronto, yet with only two thirds its population spread out over two large islands and a southern shore –  serves as both an example of the problem and of its potential solutions.

According to the 2006 Census, the vast majority of Montréalers drove alone to work, as Map 3 illustrates. While several of the city’s major suburbs have instituted high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes leading onto major bridges and highways, the bridges and highways that have designated lanes only permit bus and taxi traffic. This undermines the effectiveness of HOV lanes by discouraging carpooling, as Map 2 illustrates.

Notably, the CEC paper recommends the effective elimination of HOV lanes because drivers tend not to use them, without addressing why that’s the case. Instead, it recommends single-occupant vehicles be allowed to use the lanes if they pay a toll. Since this would necessarily slow down bus, taxi and multi-passenger vehicle traffic, such a policy would have the added disbenefit of discouraging mass transit.

Public transit complicated, but holds great potential

Back to Montréal, it’s not all bad news. As Map 1 illustrates, a significant share of the population on Montréal island and its south shore, where its most populated suburbs are located, usually commuted to work using public transit.

The explanation for the large share of the population on the central part of Montréal island using public transit and eschewing driving is easy enough to explain: The red lines on Map 1 denote Montréal’s expansive, high-speed metro (subway) system.

While a significant proportion of those on Montréal’s south shore also commuted using public transit, there were only four census tracts where a third or more of commuters did so.

The one census tract in Longueuil where a majority or residents usually commuted using public transit can be explained by the presence of the only metro station on the south shore.

When it comes to the metro, if you build it, they will come. Unfortunately, for the exception of the 2007 extension onto Laval island, there hasn’t been any work on expanding the network since the 1980’s. The logistics and economics make any significant further expansion off Montréal island unlikely in the near future.

The two census tracts in Brossard where between a third and half of residents usually commuted using public transit are more interesting. As denoted on the map, there’s an express bus route that runs through those tracts on to downtown Montréal.

But that isn’t the whole story. If having a express route into town nearby was all it took, then more than a third of commuters in census tracts where regional trains run would have taken public transit.

The difference is there’s a major transit station in Brossard with a large free commuter parking lot.

The Longueuil metro terminal, which used to provide a similarly large, free commuter parking lot years ago, no longer does so. Parking administered by the city now costs $132 per month. Further, due to a regional dispute, in 2011 public transit users on Montréal’s south shore who used to pay the same fee  as Montréal residents to take the metro had their fees increased significantly; Today, a metro pass for south shore residents costs $129 per month, double what it used to cost in 2006.

Some public transit proponents believe the new fee structure will encourage transit use, since the new, more expensive pass includes not only access to the metro, but also to south shore transit and regional rail. The assumption is the high cost of both parking and the metro pass, along with access to more public transit options, will encourage commuters who used to drive to the metro station to take the bus or train instead and leave their car at home.

That’s one possibility. Another is that commuters look at it and figure the combined cost of driving to the station and taking the metro downtown is now nearly the same as their monthly car payment or a downtown parking pass and give up on transit altogether. The 2006 Census data suggests commuters living further than walking distance away from the Longueuil metro were already less inclined to make the trip to the station, so it’s difficult to see how the hike to south shore public transit fees will reverse this outcome.

This goes back to the quote from Québec’s Transport Minister, who,  in scuttling the CEC proposal, asked: “What are we offering as an alternative?”

If suburban commuters are asked to chose between the high cost of public transit or the even higher cost of driving, how many more will see the trade-off in convenience tip the balance to driving instead of taking public transit? And that convenience trade-off is no small matter in a city like Montréal, where the average temperature this past February was -19 C, sub-zero temperatures are the norm for half the year and most bus stops are nothing more than a pole with a number placard (the few bus shelters available are unheated, open-air installations). The same can be said for the other major urban centres in Canada, save Vancouver.

As a result of years of federal and provincial downloading,  large urban transit networks like those found in and around Toronto and Montréal have increasingly raised fares and user fees and done away with intermediate solutions like free suburban subway/train station parking.

Amalgamation in the early 2000’s across Canada, especially in cities like Ottawa and Toronto, has further contributed to this problem, where a plurality of city councilors representing what were once suburban boroughs otherwise poorly served by public transit routinely vote for transit fare hikes and funding freezes/cuts over property tax hikes for their constituents — think Rob Ford.

The attached maps suggest what otherwise should be common sense: To get people out of their cars, public transit has to be a more attractive proposition. As Montréal commuters demonstrate, nothing beats rapid transit like the metro. Where that’s not an option, commuters seem to respond nearly as well when there’s either an express bus, train or metro available nearby as well as a quick, convenient way of accessing it. Making such options more widely available while maintaining relatively low-cost fares would seem like the more sensible approach to encouraging public transit use.

Lack of effort, ambition hinders car-pooling potential

When it comes to mass transit, the greatest untapped potential is carpooling. As Map 2 illustrates, there are few areas where more than 5 percent of Montréal suburban commuters share a ride to work; getting that figure up to as little as 15% would significantly alleviate traffic congestion.

While the city has (mis)spent significant resources on funding and integrating expensive and largely ineffective bike and car sharing services into the transit system, little has been done to encourage carpooling.

The regional transit authority has set up a simple rider-passenger search app that otherwise leaves commuters to negotiate with one another over things like pick-up locations, times and shared costs. Practically speaking, such an approach does little to encourage carpooling, as it’s the hassle and haggle which primarily discourage carpooling in the first instance (the few that commute as vehicle passengers are predominantly drivers’ spouses or other family members).

If the city wanted to encourage carpooling it could – itself or with/through a partner – set up a system that pre-arranges pick-up times, fees and other details between drivers and passengers, as well as takes care of billing. Perhaps throw in reduced-rate municipal parking or free metro parking for carpool drivers to sweeten the deal. (The regional transit authority provides privileged parking to carpool permit holders at its train station parking lots.)

Not only would doing so take the hassle out of carpooling, it could have the added benefit of displacing services like Uber, which the city would more than welcome. Such an ‘app’ could also serve as the launching point for a future on-demand transit system potentially enabled by autonomous vehicle technology already being tested on Canadian roads — again, with the added benefit of displacing future plans of services like Uber.

The point is, there are a lot more potentially effective and creative means of reducing traffic congestion than simply slapping tolls on everything everywhere. In any case, the CEC’s  proposed toll ‘sticks’ won’t work because the ‘carrots’ currently on offer are pretty rotten. Major urban centres in Canada would be better served addressing the factors impeding broader mass transit adoption before resorting to the easier but far less effective toll route.

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