Blogs & Comment

Traffic index highlights Canada’s poor road planning

Canada’s major cities have some of the worst congestion in North America.

(Photo: Jack Hollingsworth)

The other day, the wife and I decided to go shopping for Halloween costumes at a store on the other side of town. It was early Friday afternoon, but I urged her to hurry up with her chores so that we could get going. Two o’clock was approaching and, like a veritable traffic witching hour, you don’t want to be out on the highways in Toronto at that time.

It’s a bizarre occurrence that I still haven’t been able to make sense of after all these years. Why do the highways start to fill up at 2 p.m.? Are there that many people trying to beat rush-hour traffic that they are ironically creating their own pre-rush-hour rush hour?

We ended up getting stuck in exactly that sort of heavy mid-afternoon traffic, so our hoped-for quick jaunt across town became a half-day excursion. We both cursed at our lost productivity, and the fact of life that is bad traffic in Toronto.

It turns out, however, that there’s something to this whole problem. According to GPS provider TomTom’s latest Congestion Index, Toronto does have some of the worst traffic in North America—fifth worst, in fact. But wait, that’s not all—Vancouver and Montreal are even worse, ranking second and fourth, respectively. (Los Angeles, naturally, is king, while New York is eighth).

TomTom’s data is built on real-time traffic info collected from vehicles on the roads. The latest index, compiled from six trillion data points, measured congestion between April and June of this year and is expressed in percentages that illustrate additional driving time. Toronto’s 27%, for example, shows how much longer it took people to drive in the studied period. The overall North American average is 21%, so it’s clear how bad Canada’s three biggest cities look:

1. Los Angeles 34%
2. Vancouver 33%
3. San Francisco 29%
4. Montreal 28%
5. Toronto 27%
6. Washington 26%
7. Seattle 26%
8. New York 25%
9. Chicago 23%
10. Miami 22%

The index is fluid, so cities move up and down. Factors such as construction, emergencies, weather and special events can cause a city to do worse, which is exactly what Toronto did—the city moved up four spots from TomTom’s previous quarterly results. Conversely, the absence of such factors can cause a city to move down, as Ottawa did (it dropped out of the top 10).

Given the spring time frame of the study, it’s unlikely that weather had much of a factor in the poor showing of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. So what’s the likelier cause?

Here in Toronto, the joke is that we have two seasons: winter and construction. It’s true, after a fashion: there were literally a few occasions this summer when I attempted to drive somewhere, only to turn around and return home because construction was seemingly blocking every possible route to my destination (it doesn’t help that I live in the east end, where condo development and preparation for the 2015 Pan Am Games are in full swing).

On top of construction, the city frequently closes the major highways for construction, marathons, bike races, Boy Scout picnics—you name it (I made up the last one). Whenever this happens, traffic within the city is thrown into chaos.

TomTom’s interest in maintaining its Congestion Index is obviously geared toward selling people GPS devices; the gadgets can, after all, tell you which roads to avoid. But the data’s best side effect is that it exposes and quantifies our cities’ poor urban planning policies.

I can’t speak for other Canadian cities, but here in Toronto the debate over congestion has centred on what kind of public transit additions we need. Perhaps our politicians should instead start with better scheduling of construction and special events.