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The truth about Toronto's traffic problems: They can only be improved, never fixed

Since he took office, Mayor John Tory has been talking tough on traffic.

He quickly unveiled his six-point traffic plan earlier this month. It includes ideas such as retiming traffic signals and better reporting on road closures — to ensure that, for example, the Gardiner isn’t closed the same weekend T-Swift performs downtown.

The biggie, though, is his plan to strictly enforce no-stopping zones on major arterial roads. You stop, you get towed.

On the surface, there’s a lot to like about these measures. A lot of this is no-brainer stuff. Why even have something called a “no-stopping zone” if you’re going to occasionally let vehicles stop there?

And in an age where a robot can vacuum my house, it does seem hard to accept that the city can’t do a better job of co-ordinating road closures and timing traffic signals.

But at the same time, something about Tory’s tough traffic talk worries me. He sometimes talks about traffic like it’s something that can be solved, like an algebra problem, instead of something that we can only learn to live with, like a zombie outbreak.

That concerns me because the truth about Toronto traffic is simply this: Driving here will never be easy or fun.

The city is growing its population but isn’t growing its roads. There’s no room for more, and even if we did somehow squeeze in a few new highways, the traffic phenomenon known as “induced demand” would mean they’d quickly become gridlocked, too.

Yes, certain measures can be taken to eliminate specific things that annoy drivers, but there’s no hope of a permanent fix. And attempting to achieve that impossible fix could get very expensive and even contribute further to gridlock.

That fleet of on-call tow truck drivers you need to enforce no-stopping zones won’t come cheaply, and they’ll probably spend a bunch of time tied up in traffic themselves.

If Toronto really wants to see progress, the focus can’t just be on traffic. It needs to be broader. We need to talk about mobility as a whole. We need to look at how we can get more people moving without automobiles —whether that’s biking, walking or taking transit.

That doesn’t mean browbeating drivers. It means identifying scenarios where people willingly would not drive if only there was a workable alternative — the commuter who would love to bike if only there was a decent bike lane nearby, or the two-car family that’d gladly get rid of one vehicle if only transit ran more frequently.

It’s these kinds of considerations that really will make a difference when it comes to getting around this city. Tory’s traffic plan is fine, but it’ll take more than tough talk to really get Toronto moving again.

This post was originally published at on 2014-12-15T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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