Can We Stop Pretending More Highways Will Solve Gridlock?

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 13, 2010

I'm going to go ahead and call BS on Eric Cunningham's op-ed in yesterday's Spectator, in which he offers a defence of the proposed Mid-Peninsula Highway. (Of course I can't actually find the article on, but you may be able to access the PDF page.)

Cunningham starts reasonably enough by noting the recent Ontario Government study finding that GTA traffic is getting worse (thank goodness for government studies) but then veers off into the ridiculous, ahistorical argument that the solution is more highway building.

He points out:

While billions of dollars have been committed to GO expansion and other transit systems, it will take years to bring these improvements to market.

Of course, highways - like the Mid-Peninsula Highway that he claims would solve our traffic troubles - also cost billions of dollars and also take years to bring to market. Cunningham is silent on why the government should make highway construction its priority rather than regional transit improvement.

He continues:

Roads, bridges, highways and transit cost money. The government has a number of reliable sources of funding. They impose serious taxes on gasoline, licence and plate fees, and there are toll fees by the operators of the 407.

The problem is that the revenues the government collects, however "serious" they may be, are not enough to cover the cost of providing road infrastructure. (For that information we have another government study to thank.)

Next, Cunningham falls into the fallacy of composition when he assumes, as many apologists for road capacity increases do, that improving flow-through in part of the network would make the network as a whole more efficient.

The environment suffers with millions of vehicles operating longer, at non-optimal speeds.

What Cunningham misses is that additional road capacity induces its own demand. Put simply, when the supply of a product goes up, the price goes down and more people demand it.

Increasing highway capacity would allow more people to drive on the highway at higher speeds, which would simply encourage still more people to locate their homes farther from their destinations to take advantage of the additional highway capacity.

Even if you manage to alleviate congestion in one artery (albeit temporarily), you end up with an even less efficient overall system, because more people are driving longer distances more frequently.

Of course, even if we ignore all these facts and pretend that patterns of highway use won't change if we build a new highway, Cunningham's argument still falls apart.

The "institutional gridlock" of the GTA is concentrated around Toronto, with highway congestion getting steadily worse as you get closer to the city. Yet we're expected to believe that a highway from Fort Erie to a terminus outside of Ancaster would somehow magically alleviate the GTA's congestion.

The mind absolutely boggles.

Cunningham closes with a dose of FUD to help "stiffen the resolve" of politicians wavering on whether to stake their political reputations on new highway construction:

Governments would be well-advised to remember that most folks old enough to drive are old enough to vote.

I'm left wondering: just how does this kind of nonsense continue to get published in mainstream newspapers day after day, year after year, in blithe contradiction of all the evidence we have about how transportation networks operate and what we need to do to make our transportation system functional and sustainable?

(Sorry to close on such a grumpy note, but I've got a sinus infection and my face feels like it's been hit with an I-beam. I have little patience at the best of times for such willful ignorance in an age when it has never been so easy to get good information and make informed, evidence-based decisions.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 08:59:34

I love the slick phrasing. "billions COMMITTED for transit. Yes, committed and so far, not spent. Where HAVE we actually spent billions though? And what results are we getting?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By hunter (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 10:19:56

Might it be reasonable to assume that an article like Cunningham's doesn't get written unless you are on someone's payroll? I don't think he "misses" anything.

Of course a mid-pen highway would be the worst thing to happen to sw ontario. Taxes, sprawl, environment, farm destruction etc.

Urban intensity leads to less commuting, lower taxes, better business, better environment. Better transit supports urban intensity. Christ I hope that Metrolinx gets some traction as opposed to more highway building.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Zippo (registered) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 17:15:08

My guess is that business as usual highway expansion and a transit system that would support our present pattern of exburb sprawl are both pipe dreams as we continue the slide down the post peak oil depletion curve. We won't be able to fuel the first one, and we won't be able to afford either of them in a world of ongoing economic shrinkage (as opposed to economic growth).

When the "Stimulus" is spent, the sovereign debt bubble bursts, and the next $100+ per barrel oil price shock have hit, all of which I'd say will be within the next 18 months, folks might just stop drinking the kool-aid and take a more realistic look

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By seancb (registered) - website | Posted January 13, 2010 at 17:27:22

kunstler is that you?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By lukev (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 18:34:35

Ontario's MTO ministry is a bureaucracy which needs to keep justifying it's own existence, long after more highways are actually needed. That's why these proposals keep coming forward.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Pundit (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 18:57:01

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 20:32:10

Saw this on the weekend and wanted to share:

... "Markham planners and politicians have seen what's happened in such places as Mississauga and are repelled. "They are also recognizing that the urban form they had developed was becoming a problem in terms of economic development, particularly traffic congestion due to extremely low-density housing" that makes public transit untenable, Winfield says." ...

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By lukev (anonymous) | Posted January 13, 2010 at 22:00:16

Somebody needs to bring it up: A single GO train moves more people than the QEW does in an hour. Four GO trains move 4 times more.

And there's no reason to believe installing GO service would take longer than building a freeway. Just this summer, GO set up a Niagara train service in a matter of weeks.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By highwater (registered) | Posted January 14, 2010 at 10:15:41

Love this quote from an LTE in the Spec this morning:

"Most automobile commuters don't "suffer" lengthy commutes, they cause them."

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted January 16, 2010 at 09:36:24

Wow do I detect a sudden outbreak of common sense :)

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jason (registered) | Posted January 16, 2010 at 14:40:47

what kind of crazy city sets a goal of having more people walking to work when they could just drive?? ....and actually plans properly in order to see it happen.

Comment edited by jason on 2010-01-16 13:41:23

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Con Black (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2010 at 10:20:14

Can't wait to see the argument made that

'vehicle occupancy has gone up and cannot practically increase any further so we need to build more roads'

but it has never happened so don't get my hopes up.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Wha? (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2010 at 14:51:19

So many models assume a growing economy. A growing economy pays for so many fantastic plans, not all of which have to succeed to keep the economy growing. A shrinking economy is less forgiving. In the '70s Hamilton built expressways up the central escarpment to bring mountain residents to bay-side employment fields. Traffic used to bottleneck on Wellington from Main to north of Barton every afternoon. Not much to slow you down there now. The traffic backs up now on arteries leaving the city every morning, however. And the roving, ongoing construction along the QEW from Burlington to Etobicoke seems to me just to be one more cause of delays.

Everything, every system, no matter how good, reaches it's level of peak performance, after which the relationship between investment and return declines.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By michaelcumming (registered) - website | Posted January 25, 2010 at 15:23:17

Building more roads to address traffic congestion is like solving your weight problem by buying a bigger pair of pants.

Once those carbon taxes kick in then maybe people will examine their transportation behaviour from more of a user-pay perspective.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Bumper Music (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2011 at 10:24:44

They don’t want taxes or tolls, but more than half of Toronto area residents say they would support a congestion charge for motorists driving into the downtown, according to an Angus Reid poll for Torstar News Service.

Although most residents indicated they were relatively satisfied with the region’s transportation system, a majority would also like to see their daily commute improved. Many, however, fear that it’s only going to get worse in the coming decade.

While commuters are overwhelmingly opposed to the tax and toll schemes being floated to fund public transit improvements, the poll showed congestion fees were a measure they might be willing to consider.

Fifty-five per cent of the 1,001 people surveyed said they strongly or moderately support a congestion charge like the one used to curb traffic in central London, England. Only 38 per cent were opposed to such a fee.

Respondents living downtown gave the strongest support to a charge that would be levied on drivers entering the core at certain times.

“More than a toll, this is a way of addressing how to fund (transportation) but it’s a way also of just reducing congestion. I think anyone who comes to Toronto on a regular basis recognizes traffic’s a pretty big problem,” said Jaideep Mukerji, Angus Reid vice-president of public affairs.

The poll did not, however, determine how respondents would feel if they were personally affected by congestion fees, he said.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools