Don't Wait Until We're Bogged Down

By Ben Bull
Published March 04, 2007

Toronto Councillor Brian Ashton has recently returned from a fact finding mission to London, England, where he spent three days looking at their congestion tax scheme with a view to introducing the same thing here in Toronto.

Early indications are that he was not too impressed: "There will be headlights shining out my butt before we ever see congestion charges in Toronto," he told the Toronto Star upon his return.

Ashton's main concern appears to have been the differing levels of congestion between the two cities.

"In London they had so much congestion that buses and taxis and even emergency vehicles in the center of the city couldn't move," he explained.

Fair point. Whatever the complaints of Toronto commuters we can hardly claim the same level of traffic snarl ups over here. I have experienced the gridlock of London first-hand – I lived there for two years in the early 1990s – and Toronto's too, and I have to concur with Councillor Ashton's opinion.

That's not to say I don't find his attitude disappointing. Is this man really saying we have to wait until our ambulances are bogged down in traffic before we get some kind of congestion tax here? Has he never heard of forward thinking, or planning ahead...?

London is revered today as a model for the world to follow when it comes to traffic management but in reality - having spent probably the better part of two weeks out of my two years there stood still in traffic - I can assure you that London waited far too long to deal with their traffic problems, and even now they have a ways to go.

The London Underground continues to be a transit user's nightmare with its impossibly complicated fare zone pricing and a congestion and safety record the envy of no-one.

I doubt we will see headlights shining out of Councillor Ashton's butt anytime soon. His head is stuck too far up there already.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By jerry123 (anonymous) | Posted March 05, 2007 at 13:13:25

The problem with implementing a congestion tax in Toronto is that the main traffic congestion isn't going from the suburbs to downtown, but the route from 1 suburb to another. This is a trend which I found when I look at the traffic planning which has taken place over the last 30 years... all improvements concentrated on getting people from the suburbs to downtown and back, but no one bothered to make an effort to have any sort of reliable public transportation that goes from, say Mississauga to North York/Markham. Creating a congestion tax may be good in theory to get funding for public transit, but as you can see, the traffic that goes downtown hasn't increased since the 80s as people have options (ie. subway, go train).. the gridlock exists on 401 east/west. Implementing a tax will only deter businesses from locating in downtown because of the high price of office space and taxes. You want more business parks?

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted March 05, 2007 at 15:14:25

Hi Jerry,

These are 2 different models altogether. The purpose of the congestion tax is to try and encourage more transit ridership to and from the downtown. The 401 doesn’t go downtown, and I’m not aware of any proposal to tax this traffic. You raise a good point though. It may be prudent to toll the 401 traffic as well; however, as you say, that would be for a different transit model altogether.

Either way, the purpose of any toll would be to off-set the cost of road maintenance (which should be borne more heavily by the highest users) and to invest some of the profit into transit alternatives, (where they exist).

I don’t buy into the argument about the expansion of out-of-town business parks. The downtown is unique. It has unique advantages for business (central location, proximity to broader amenities, ease of doing business) and thus it is always going to cost more to locate there. While the downtown does indeed need to stay competitive with other business locations, I don’t believe a modest congestion tax will dramatically affect any decision to locate there. Employees can take transit, Executives/Sales staff can off-set some expenses through their expense reports/tax deductions, other businesses may pass on the costs through price increases - all in all I think this is a cost of doing business which most people can handle (I don’t know this for a fact of course, some evidence would be nice…).

It is precisely because of the downtown’s uniqueness that it needs this congestion tax. Because of the central location the downtown attracts more traffic. The downtown neighbourhoods therefore, need to be protected from the effects of gridlock. The congestion tax is needed to:

  • promote transit ridership and encourage more transit investment
  • clean the air for downtown residents
  • Make downtown streets safer
  • Help cover the cost of downtown street maintenance

If you are not certain as to whether these measures are needed, and whether the transit balance in downtown TO is out of whack, try living or commuting here. It’s dangerous, smelly, and bad for your health. It needs fixing. If we don’t get this tax how is the transportation balance going to be achieved? Behaviour is shaped by rewards and consequences. I am convinced that the downtown congestion tax is the right kind of consequence that will off-set the wonky balance that we currently have.

Thanks for your comments


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