Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Call for Submissions: How to Reduce Traffic Congestion?

I've been publishing posts on this blog for a few months and am grateful that I have a loyal, if somewhat small, group of followers out there. Keeping a fairly consistent writing pace is rewarding, and I'm always excited to reply to some of your comments, but what I feel is missing is a greater degree of interaction. Granted, I'm usually the first to say that online communication is a poor substitute for a real conversation, let alone a live debate. However, today I am willing to experiment with the series of tubes we like to call the internet. After all, if I have become capable of embracing the chaos that is Twitter, why not attempt to moderate a discussion via the comment section of my own blog? Easy as pie.

Here's the question: how do we reduce traffic congestion?

Hwy 401 traffic on the Saturday of a long weekend (photo credit: Bicycle Bob - Flickr)

This assumes, of course, that clogged roads are something we would like to eliminate. From wasting time to causing road rage to sickening us by polluting the air we breathe, it is an unwanted yet complacently accepted symptom of large urban areas. For the sake of this discussion, we must take for granted that everyone wants away with traffic jams. And, if you're like me, you also hope to get rid of slower-than-normal speeds on highways due to a high volume of vehicles outside of rush hour, on weekends. (This past Saturday, I found myself carpooling en route to a small town about two hours from where I live, and was appalled but not shocked at how many others were doing the same. Next time I will take the train.)

Instead of entertaining the fantasy of completely overhauling our North American public transit systems so they closely resemble those in places like Copenhagen, Munich, and Tokyo, let's focus on less resource-intensive and therefore more realistic strategies. Here are a few to start you off:

1. Implementing Toll Roads. The initial setup brings some costs, but these are offset by toll revenues before too long, and only those who drive are "penalized". Check out the current debate on this very issue between the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario and a car-lover.

2. Eliminating Subsidies to Oil Companies. Here's a thought: instead of giving billions of dollars to fossil fuel producing corporations via tax breaks, spend the money on the fantasy transit systems I mentioned above and watch as drivers find more affordable methods of transportation! For a summary of the Climate Action Network report on this controversy, go here.

3. Bringing back Chevrons. Remember the white blazes on the 401 near Whitby? They were meant to remind drivers to keep a safe distance from each other. I believe they are equally useful, at least in theory, to move traffic along more smoothly during times of congestion. At least one of my friends agrees that educating the public about the futility and inefficiency of staying close behind the car ahead (causing stop-and-go movement) is part of the solution.

There you have it: only three ideas, but still they indicate how wide the range of possibilities may be. Please share your thoughts on these, feel free to add other suggestions, and comment on what others are saying. To keep track of the discussion, subscribe to receive updates on new messages via e-mail with the link at the bottom of the comments section.

And... go!


  1. I think the real change has to come from how people think about driving. Look at how some people behave in religion, with the holier than thou attitude. If the majority of people on the road had the attitude of 'how I drive is proper' than that may have a bigger impact than only having chevrons.

    This also leads to the topic, how fragile our society is. If our society were to swing the other way, we could quickly find ourselves
    in a Clockwork Orange.

    Scary stuff!

  2. Interesting theory, Abdal. I certainly adopt the "holier than thou" attitude while driving and mentally thumb my nose at poor driving behaviour! The result is that when someone cuts into my lane because I leave a lot of space ahead of me, that only serves to make me shake my head sadly, and it doesn't dissuade me from what I know is "proper" driving. So the question is, how do we educate people about this? That's what I meant with the example about the chevrons. What do we do in addition to painting the highway?

  3. I think PSAs on the 3 mediums (TV, radio, and web) would increase awareness with the public.
    But to use the parallel of religion again, people are more likely to listen to someone that they want to follow. So the announcements would have to be made into multiple languages to represent multiple cultures that make up our roads.

  4. I've always been anti-toll road... that's what taxes are for, after all.

    Personally, I think the British have a much better idea: tax the *snot* out of gas. I don't mean just eliminating subsidization, I mean outright gobs and gobs of government taxation on the sale of gas to private vehicles (possibly including transport trucks). Put half the money into reducing carbon and toxic emissions from industry (green power plants, low impact mining, R&D into ways to improve existing methods), the other half into "green"-ifying cities for transportation (Light Rail systems, street cars, electric buses, et al).

  5. Abdal, I have to stay true to my cynical side and disagree about using PSAs - although broadcasting them in multiple languages is important. Announcing a new idea without actually "teaching" the theory behind it, without a method of determining whether the target audience actually understands, it just seems ineffective. After all, we're not trying to advertise a sale, we're trying to educate the ignorant.

  6. Marc, how is it fair to tax everyone equally for a resource used unequally? Shouldn't people who commute to work every day, use their car to run errands, and drive up to the cottage every summer weekend pay more than those who walk, cycle, and take transit most of the time?
    As for taxing gas, I'm all for it. You have to make a given product/service expensive to alter consumer behaviour around it.

  7. All taxes are, to some extent, unequal in their application: some people don't use a hospital in years or decades, others are in their for months at a time. Taxation isn't about equality: it's about fairness, if you will... about making sure that service that people actually need (and not just want) are available.

    At the end of the day, you could argue that toll roads would accomplish the same goal, but I still don't like the concept as much. Taxing gas requires no additional construction, no additional employees doing mindless labour, and no slowdowns on the highways themselves.

  8. You could also argue that pedestrians and cyclists buy stuff that is usually transported by truck along highways, so the responsibility is on all of us regardless of our preferred method of transportation. But that doesn't change the fact that driving is a luxury that some use a lot more than others.

    That being said, I like the first advantage you list about taxing gas - no further infrastructure costs!