A new report suggests some of Canada’s worst traffic bottlenecks are serious enough to compare with those in major American cities like New York and Los Angeles.
The report commissioned by the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) found that the most consistently congested stretch of highway in the country, a portion of Highway 401 running through central Toronto, is the ninth most clogged artery in Canada and the United States.
A bottleneck in Montreal, considered the third worst in Canada according to the new research, compares with congestion levels in Boston.
The CAA identified the worst bottlenecks by analyzing provincial and municipal traffic volume numbers along with GPS data over nearly 3,000 kilometres of roads across the country.
It says the report is meant to highlight areas where policy-makers should focus their attention to relieve congestion, which it argues hurts productivity and adds to overall greenhouse gas emissions.
But observers caution against reading too much into the data, saying that not all slow traffic zones are created equal and those in the heart of urban areas need to be viewed differently from major highways.
The report said the top 20 bottlenecks in the country comprise just 65 of the 3,000 kilometres analyzed for the study.
Toronto’s oft-lamented traffic woes loomed large in the data, with the city securing half the spots in both the top 10 and the top 20.
Three of Montreal’s most congested areas made the top 10, with another two in the top 20.
Vancouver rounded out the top 10 with two particularly busy stretches of road. Two more Vancouver roadways, along with one in Quebec City, completed the top 20.
CAA spokesman Ian Jack said the report highlights urgent need for action on addressing gridlock, adding simply building more roads is not the answer.
“It may be a matter of pouring concrete and asphalt in some cases, but there are a lot of other solutions as well,” he said. “Whether that’s metered on-ramps, high-occupancy lanes, other ways of addressing these issues, we encourage policy-makers to use the whole tool kit to focus in on these areas that are clearly of highest impact.”
Those impacts, researchers suggest, are significant and multifaceted.
Study author Vijay Gill of transportation infrastructure consulting firm CPCS said the delays take a toll on both labour productivity and the environment.
The research showed that a commute along the busiest stretch of Toronto highways can add an average of 36 minutes to a 60-minute commute, resulting in an annual total of 3.2 million driver-hours in delays on that route.
The study estimated the country’s worst bottlenecks result in 11.5 million hours worth of delays and drain about 22 million litres of fuel per year.
Gill said all these factors boil down to one simple metric that’s hard to measure but top-of-mind for many Canadians.
“(It’s) just quality of life,” he said, “No one likes driving in congestion. No one likes the randomness or the variability. So it’s clear that there’s significant user benefits … by addressing some of these issues.”
At least one traffic congestion expert took a cautious view of the findings.
Former Vancouver chief city planner Brent Toderian said there’s value in assessing high-traffic areas, but said most research of this kind is based on the assumption that driving is the best way to travel.
Toderian likened congestion to cholesterol, saying there are both harmful and helpful types and asserting that at least some level of traffic is vital for a city to thrive.
A slow-moving street in the heart of an urban centre, for instance, could be prime real estate for retailers to set up shop, he said.
“We can’t all worship at the alter of speed and volume, he said. “Successful cities have congestion…. If you don’t have any of it, you die.”
Toderian said highways, which are specifically designed to move high volumes of traffic as quickly as possible, should be viewed differently. Still, he cautioned against expanding highway networks too much, since increased capacity leads to a rise in the number of cars on the roads.
He said price-based tools, such as tolls, are the most effective ways to keep traffic in check.