THE DEMOCRATIC REPORTER
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National Post - Apr. 17, 2010 - By Terence Corcoran
The great gridlock joke
Assuming roads were clearer than they are now, the "economically optimal speed" in Toronto would be 69 kilometres an hour, according to HDR Corp.
Gridlock is allegedly killing our cities. Toronto, by the latest reckonings of the Board of Trade and other pied pipers of traffic doom, might as well be dead.
"Worse than L.A.," said a headline about a recent ranking that showed the average Toronto commuter spends 80 minutes bogged down in congestion going to and from work.
And the costs? Another killer. That 80-minute commute is a $5-billion annual burden to the Canadian economy, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. Citing the number -- if the OECD says it, it must be true -- the Board of Trade called for "increased investment in public transit and policies that encourage Torontonians to leave their cars behind."
There were no shortages of people taking up these instant talking points.
We need tolls on roads, said Mississauga's Hazel McCallion, to pay for public transit. Toronto Mayor David Miller favours some form of road tolling, too. Everywhere there's talk of parking taxes, more transit subsidies, congestion charges, HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes.
But now let us turn to what the congestion numbers really show, which is not what they say they show. Let's also look at where the numbers came from and why, in truth, they are all really just fabricated fodder from the transit-industrial complex that hovers over urban transportation policy around the world and has all but seized control of Toronto.
Torontonians are getting conned. There is no OECD study on Toronto congestion showing $5-billion in economic losses. It is also certain that the famed 80-minute commute that supposedly gives Toronto the worst gridlock in the developed world is at best statistically indefensible. It distorts Toronto commute times and misrepresents the true nature of urban travel.
What the real numbers suggest is that if the implied solutions to gridlock -- more public transit, taxes on cars and less use of the automobile -- were imposed, actual commute times would increase, not decrease. The costs of urban transportation, including losses attributed to gridlock and time spent commuting, will also increase.
Not that anybody really knows what the costs are now. The $5-billion OECD figure now imbedded as authoritative in the Toronto psyche is not an OECD number, even though it does appear in the OECD's recent "territorial review" of Toronto, published in January. But the OECD did no research.
A big clue as to where the number comes from appears in the opening sentences of the OECD report on Toronto: "The OECD would like to thank the Mayor of Toronto, David Miller, as well as city, provincial and federal officials" who provided the imformation, data and context for the OECD analysis.
Regarding the $5-billion congestion cost, it is actually a U.S. dollar number -- converted from Canadian dollars (at an outdated exchange rate) -- based on Canadian dollar numbers provided to the OECD by Metrolinx, the Ontario government's transit agency for the GTA.
The authoritative $5-billion OECD number, in other words, is the product of the Toronto-Ontario transit-industrial compex's massive economic propaganda machine. In Canadian dollars, the actual Metrolinx claim is that "High car-usage rates have led to traffic congestion, with annual costs for commuters in 2006 estimated at around $3.3-billion per year and the annual economic costs at $2.7-billion for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area."
To arrive at its estimates, HDR performed an oft-used technique. It estimated the time car drivers would experience if the roads allowed cars to move at certain predetermined optimum speeds.
Assuming roads were clearer than they are now, the "economically optimal speed" in Toronto would be 69 kilometres an hour. But the current actual average speed is 42 km/h, creating a difference of 27 km/h.
That's a 40% reduction in optimality, which if calculated across the GTA can be massaged into a big number. HDR comes up with excess travel delays worth $2.2-billion in lost commuter time. Emissions costs, vehicle operating costs, accident costs and a few other items bring the total cost of congestion to $3.3-billion.
In another series of calculations and speculations, HDR figures that overall auto congestion on the roads of Toronto causes businesses to be less efficient and incur more costs.
That adds another $2.7-billion to the imputed cost of automobile gridlock, bringing the total to $6-billion. How realistic this number is remains unknown and untested, mainly because nobody really cares what the real number is -- so long as it's a big number that in the end can be marshalled to justify the Transit City light-rail spending extravaganza.
The objective is to get cars off the road and put people on mass transit LRT trains and subway cars.
The HDR/Metrolinx report performs its greatest economic feat via a giant macro-economic number-crunching game that produced a public spending miracle. By spending $31-billion (in 2006 dollars) over the next couple of decades on LRT, subway and other transit projects, the Toronto economy would receive total benefits of $46-billion, for a net present value gain of $15-billion and "an internal rate of return of 19%."
How will this actually work? All the calculations are based on assumptions, not the least of which is the idea that massive public transit benefits will overcome the automobile in efficiency, speed and reliability. To make sure that happens, cars must be taken off the road, and those left must be taxed to death. The mayor of Paris once captured the essence of such policies: "It is only by making it hell for car drivers that we will force them to give up their damned cars."
What the statistics on travel times in Toronto and other cities in North America actually show, however, is that public transit is slow and auto travel is much faster. A good portion of the alleged gridlock and auto congestion implied in the congestion numbers can be attributed to the inherent inability of public transit to get people where they want to go quickly.
The now-famous Toronto Board of Trade commute time of 80 minutes, allegedly slower than other major North American cities, is a good example of the private car versus public transit divide. The 80 minutes is an average for Toronto of all commuters using all forms of transport to get to work. It's from a 2005 Statistics Canada report, The Time It Takes to Get to Work and Back. But as the StatsCan report says, the most important factor in how long it takes to get to work and back is whether commuters use public transit. "All things being equal," says StatsCan, "commuters who use public transit to work ... spend an average of 41 minutes more on their daily commute than those using an automobile."
That 41 minutes more in public transit travel time brings the total commute time for TTC and GO transit users to 113 minutes (see tables). The average car driver spends much less, 72 minutes. Now I ask you: Is 72 minutes in a two-way commute to work an indicator of massive gridlock and congestion? Since when is a 36-minute drive to work an indicator of driving hell?
The Toronto congestion story is all story, myth and statistical illusion.
Toronto gets congested on some key roads and arteries for some periods of time during the average weekday. But getting around by car, and commuting to work, is mostly easy and efficient. Compared with public transit, it's a no-brainer. As StatsCan put in its report: "It is therefore not surprising that despite higher fuel costs and increased environmental concerns, most workers continue to use mainly their automobile to get to work."
Will spending $31-billion on new public transit change the situation? It is hard to see why or how.
As for the comparison with U.S. cities, the first point is that experts say the U.S. commute numbers are likely severely out of date, since they are based on an obsolete 2000 U.S. definition of major metropolitan areas. As a result, the U.S. travel times -- which are also based on different survey techniques--are likely not strictly comparable. That likely explains why Toronto and Montreal are at the bottom of the list.
Still, it is interesting to see that the cities with the least volume of public transit use -- Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle -- are the cities with the fastest commute times. Could it be that's because they build more and better roads instead of massive public transit operations that are costly to build, expensive to operate --and slow?
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