Traffic Wars:
R.E.M. knew it all too well

Everybody hurts in the modern commute. How can we stop the pain?
Michael Stipe knows your pain. Commuting nightmares are affecting millions in cities across Canada as the average Canadian now spends nearly 12 full days a year getting to work and returning home. A 2005 Statistics Canada study found that commuting times around the country have increased significantly since 1992.

With urban sprawl, employees may now be travelling greater distances to their place of employment, but the primary contributing factor to increased commuting times is widespread traffic congestion.

In your experience, what cities have the best and worst traffic conditions, and what can we learn from them?


Everybody hurts when we sit in traffic. It has a tremendous emotional and physical toll, not to mention an economic and environmental toll. Traffic engineers and city planners across the globe are always looking to find new solutions. For example, The London Congestion charge of five pounds was implemented in 2003 (now upped to eight pounds) aiming to reduce vehicle congestion in central London. Within six months of the congestion charge, the number of motorists entering the area dropped about 30 percent. Half of the former motorists turned to public transportation, about a quarter of them avoided the area and others began to carpool or use bicycles.

In an effort to improve traffic safety and efficiency, Drachten, a city in the Netherlands began to remove road signs and traffic lights to encourage drivers to pay more attention to their surroundings. The experiment worked; the number of traffic fatalities dropped and traffic jams are almost non-existent. Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman pioneered the concept and called it “shared space”. Variations of it are being used in other European Union cities.

But will North American commuters ever abandon their cars a la Mr. Stipe and his band?

Back home in Toronto, blogger Steve Munro provides a forum for discussing transit issues. His website draws readers to leave detailed comments, and engage in lengthy discussions — it’s not just a place to vent their transit frustrations. Despite his advocacy for transit, he understands the challenges in using public transportation as an alternative. He says the city needs to offer better service and continue to grow with the commuter demands of the city.

In a phone interview, Munro says traffic congestion has grown over the decades and there is no magic bullet. He says a lot of traffic problems are now in the suburbs, “traffic woes in the [Greater Toronto Area] are regional, and they are actually worse in the suburbs where a lot of the alternative schemes are simply not practical.”

In the daily traffic wars on Toronto streets, public transportation is sold as the best solution. But this alternative will never be the better way until it is made more convenient. For example, in Toronto the subway could operate longer hours, perhaps be open round the clock. Currently, on Sunday, the first subway car doesn’t begin service until 9 a.m. Riders complain that streetcars are overcrowded during peak hours, they run irregularly and many routes are under-serviced. Commuters coming from the suburbs don’t have it any easier. The region’s GO trains are often standing room only, and finding parking in the GO station lot is close to impossible unless you pay monthly to reserve a spot.

With a glaring lack of a national strategy, Canadian public transit is mostly stuck in neutral. So how else can we improve the mess? Suggestions are most welcome.

8 comment(s)

P from the TJanuary 18, 2008 12:18 EST

I've heard Santiago, Chile, and other cities limits drivers to only drive two days a week, with the 'driveable' days indicated on motorist license plates. Maybe Canadian roads aren't as busy as that yet, but it's getting close to such extreme solutions.

AnonymousJanuary 18, 2008 13:48 EST

Not to worry people, when the new millennium Depression arrives, no one will be able to afford gas for their army-issue tanks anyway, plus there'll be a whole new unforeseeable series of significant things to occupy our emotion, physical, economic and environment concerns.

Padre PioJanuary 18, 2008 14:16 EST

So traffic is costing our economy billions of dollars each year, as well as untold suffering and pollution?

Easy solution: the Nobel Prize awarded in Traffic Management, with a cash prize of $50million. Let the greed incentives take care of the rest. Policy won't fix it; governments are too stupid.

P KennedyJanuary 19, 2008 16:21 EST

The answer lies in two words: carbon tax. The federal round table agrees with most reseach in the field: we will not build the infrastructure for clean, livable, urban cites until the environmental and infrastructural subsidies for car-culture are ended. But with no political leadership on the horizon in Ottawa, we will just have to rely on that great Canadian solution: sit and wait till the Americans do it first.

RickWJanuary 21, 2008 14:59 EST

Carbon Tax perhaps — but only if it is a dedicated tax, and doesn't get folded into general revenues.

vaaleaJanuary 22, 2008 21:44 EST

I'm curious of any thoughts on PRT as a mode of transit. =0) and as a solution to many of the transit problems we currently have. I'm eager to see how the first project/s go. I think its benefits will attract more riders who hate public transit because of sitting at bus stops (in the freezing cold?) and longer commutes because of frequent stops... and sharing breathing space with lots of strangers squashed up against each other in rush hour. haha.

AnonymousJanuary 23, 2008 14:39 EST

That is the THE perfect video for this discussion. Fun

RickWJanuary 27, 2008 19:23 EST

vaalea: It's the only way to go. The main resistance to public transit is the insistence that we herded to collection points. I would go one step further, and replace the present roadways with the system that would make PRT possible, and I would put it underground (as much as possible) for aesthetics. That way, the concrete and asphalt could be turned into green space, and there would no longer be any need to have a waste-of-space garage attached to the house.

And the system would be fully automated, so that a user could simply put in a call for a "car" when required.

In a nutshell, the only successful applications to the "crunch" of city living will be those which can cater to our individual preferences (within the whole), rather than force us to comply with some centralized (and hence, politically manipulatable) behemoth.

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