At 35%, Ontario’s transportation sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector, equalling the combined output of emissions from all electrical generation and industrial activities in the province (see: “#ONclimate: Ontario’s Climate Change Strategy,” the Government of Ontario, November 2015). Thanks to a growing population that’s commuting longer distances to and from work, we can expect emissions from personal vehicle use to rise, if left unchecked. More cars on our roads leads to more congestion and longer travel time, generating more air pollution and climate changing greenhouse gas emissions.
Congestion also costs our economy. When people and goods are stuck in traffic, we’re not only wasting time, but money as well. In the Greater Toronto Area, it’s been estimated that congestion accounts for an economic loss of between $6 and $11 billion annually (see: “Congestion costs may be up to $11 billion for GTA, study says,” the Toronto Star, July 12, 2013).
What’s the solution for congestion? Traffic engineers have approached congestion as a failure of engineering – if there’s not enough capacity in the roads system to meet our needs, the answer is to expand the roads system to create additional capacity.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The real causes of congestion are found in economics, and the balance between supply and demand. Building more roads makes it easier for car owners to drive more and over longer distances. Since it’s easier and cheaper to drive, we end up with more cars on our roads creating congestion, which leads to a demand for more new roads.
For too long, traffic engineers have used a measure known as “Level of Service” to determine when roads should be expanded or new roads and highways built (see: "Level of Service," Wikipedia). Letter grades ranging from “A” to “F” are assigned to traffic conditions on existing roads. Where traffic flows freely with little interruption, the road gets an “A”. Where traffic is significantly impaired due to congestion, lower grade levels are assigned, and traffic engineers start looking around at how to expand capacity.
Traffic flows more freely the less it is impeded. Under the influence of Level of Service standards, our roads have become wider and more numerous. Lane widths have grown, along with turning radius at intersections. Level of Service standards have been used to justify removing pedestrian infrastructure like crosswalks and transit stops, as pedestrians and busses that stop pick people up slow down the flow of traffic (see: “Confessions of a Traffic Engineer: the Misuse of Level of Service,” Peter Koonce, P.E., City of Portland, September 28, 2012).
After decades of prioritizing cars over people, we’ve created a congested car-centric urban environment that is massively impacting the atmosphere. By not recovering the full costs of roads use from users, we’ve effectively subsidized a sprawling low density built form on the edges of our cities. We know that to reduce congestion and emissions, we must reduce the number of cars on our roads (see: "California Has Officially Ditched Car-Centric ‘Level of Service’,” Streetsblog LA, August 7, 2014). But when traffic engineers ponder the problem of climate change, the solution they come up with is often a perverse one: let’s build more roads.
By playing games with numbers to show reduced commuter times and emissions, decision-makers are sold false solutions to both congestion and climate change problems. At a time when all levels of government are looking at debt-financing new infrastructure to stimulate the economy, it’s now more important than ever that we acknowledge that building more roads, while politically popular, will not take us towards having a prosperous economy or a healthy environment.
Instead of using public infrastructure money to build new roads, let’s take real action to reduce emissions and congestion by investing in projects and initiatives designed to get people out of their cars. Let’s spend our public resources on improving alternative transportation and transit options in existing built-up areas. And let’s do away with unsustainable Level of Service measures which simply encourage more cars on our roads, and facilitate taxpayer-subsidized urban sprawl.
(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)
Originally published in the Sudbury Star as "SudburyColumn: More roads won't ease traffic jams" (online), and "More roads no solution to traffic congestion" (print), February 13, 2016 - without hyperlinks.