New moves: Tech solutions that can help solve Toronto’s gridlock

New moves: Tech solutions that can help solve Toronto’s gridlock

Toronto has some of the worst traffic in the world. These startups are working to fix that.

Gridlock is a special kind of grief, with its own unique stages: inventing expletives, using the horn as an expression of your internal wail and, eventually, begrudging acceptance. (You’ll know you’ve reached the final stage when you can say the words “Highway 401” without twitching.)

For years, Toronto has been grappling with a skyrocketing population, crumbling infrastructure and chronically underfunded public transit. And these compounding challenges have created a massive traffic-induced deficit. We’re losing time — drivers spend an estimated 199 hours per year in gridlock, while the TTC averaged 253 delays per day, totalling 65 hours. We’re also losing money (an eye-watering $11 billion in forfeited productivity in 2023) and mortgaging our mental health. Sitting in traffic is linked to increased rates of stress, depression and even intimate partner violence. The grief is real. And it’s been recognized on an international stage.

According to Tomtom, a Dutch geolocation technology company, last year it took longer to drive 10 kilometres in Toronto (29 minutes) than in almost any other city on the planet. “We made it to number three in the world and that’s an awful place to be,” says Mahtot Gebresselassie, an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental and urban change at York University.

So how can the GTA — with its 6 million-plus citizens, 2 million commuter cars, endless construction and mounting road rage — start to meaningfully address these issues? Fortunately, there are some innovative technologies and smart solutions to help us get unstuck.

Make streets smarter

One of the fundamental ways to reduce congestion is to optimize the roads and intersections, without asking a single commuter to change their habits. In the industry they call this “managing demand” and according to Kurtis McBride, CEO and co-founder of Kitchener traffic tech giant Miovision, it can yield substantial improvements.

Among the things currently impeding the flow of vehicles and people through Toronto is an epidemic of bad timing and wrong signals. Specifically: old-school traffic lights stuck on set schedules that don’t reflect how or how many road users travel through intersections. One city-sanctioned solution is a cohort of traffic agents dispatched to busy junctions, who act as maestros amid the unruly commuter orchestra to make sure everyone is doing what they should.

The long-term fix, however, is to better understand the problem and start sending the right signals.

A new generation of traffic tools has taken intersections well beyond green-yellow-red to include AI-enhanced 24/7 video surveillance, data collection and analysis, as well as the ability to optimize traffic signals on the fly. At Miovision, they think of their product line as a smartphone with apps. It’s a single piece of hardware that, with software updates, can accomplish increasingly sophisticated tasks.

A 360-degree intersection camera, for instance, can assess vehicle flow, pedestrian safety or the efficiency of bike lanes, or it can be enhanced (using cellular or infrared technology) with the power to trigger signal changes that provide, say, priority for emergency vehicles. Miovision technology is currently used in about 20 percent of all North American signals. Within Toronto, Miovision is gathering multimodal data at 100 high-volume intersections.

Make maintenance easier

In efforts to reduce pothole slaloms and pavement-crack lurches, new technologies are ready to fill in.

“The City of Toronto is seeing challenges in maintaining its existing infrastructure,” says Emil Sylvester Ramos, co-founder and CEO of iris R&D, a Burlington-based company that automates road-maintenance monitoring. While there is no easy fix to tackle all systemic issues at once, innovative tech can provide repeatable solutions at a lower cost, which can help overcome those challenges.

What iris R&D offers is tech that acts like an infrastructure nanny, leveraging AI to support Public Works in assessing the state of street signs, road-surface markings, cracks and potholes through the use of cameras on municipal vehicles. Problems can be identified with less labour and fewer emissions, and the information can be automatically processed to create work orders. The result is an up-to-date picture of a municipality’s maintenance needs and an opportunity to quickly repair traffic-causing snafus.

Rethink the network

If you consider that Toronto traffic is made up of people taking trips by foot, bike, bus or automobile, and the goal is to make that network as efficient as possible, you will find yourself on a road that leads to one knotty question: How do you get more people out of their multi-tonne, carbon-emitting vehicles and using any other mode of transportation?

In some respects, this is an exercise in overcoming the past. “In the ’70s and ’80s we built roads for cars,” says McBride. “And then in the 21st century, city planners started thinking, ‘Hold on a second, there are lots of other users of the roads.’”

That paradigm shift has been articulated in the concept of “complete streets,” which stipulates that streets be safe and accessible for everyone using any mode to get around. The City of Toronto has outlined its own guidelines, which provide the framework for all new street design projects, and the results can be seen in such people- and cyclist-friendly areas as Queens Quay. And change can be swift, since bike lanes were added along Bloor Street West, for instance, car traffic has fallen by 24 percent and bike trips increased by 25 percent.

Achieving these outcomes was the result of careful planning. When the Bloor bike lane was in its pilot stage, Miovision deployed its technology to collect and analyze data to better understand how cyclists and motorists were sharing — and facing potential risks — along that corridor. Today, Miovision offers AI-predictive modelling of traffic collisions that can help identify dangers before people get hurt. “If you have an aggregate statistic of the places where you have a lot of those near-misses, you can be proactive about making a change,” says McBride.

Build better options

To lure drivers out of their cars, the alternatives need to be safe, but also reliable and efficient, says Qiming Weng, CEO of Drop Mobility, a Toronto company that helps municipalities and institutions build electric bike-share and mobility solutions. Fortunately, when it comes to bike-share programs, “Toronto has one of the biggest systems in the world.”

What Weng would like to see more of is the roll-out of e-bike offerings in suburban areas, such as Mississauga, which announced its new program in early April. “Most cities in the world understand that bikes have to be part of the conversation — they’re like the glue between these bigger infrastructure projects. You need the last mile,” he says.

“What I wish more people understood is that car traffic is an exponential problem,” says Weng. For instance, if you have 10 parking spots, you can fit up to 10 cars without a hitch. “But the 11th car will create a huge issue all of a sudden. And traffic has a lot of those dynamics, where it’s good and then it gets extremely ugly very fast.”

Put a price on traffic

Another strategy to unsnarl roadways is to make drivers pay for the privilege.

In June, Manhattan is expected to roll out a U.S.$15 toll, the first congestion pricing in North America. Similar programs in London, Stockholm and Singapore have shown that financial disincentives do influence commuters to use other forms of transportation. To be effective, however, they need to be accompanied by big boosts in public transit. In Toronto, projects such as the Ontario Line and Eglinton LRT are still years away from completion. And complicating the current system in the GTA is disjointed pricing for many suburban commuters, who may need to use two or more services to reach the city centre.

“Integration is a big problem,” says Gebresselassie, “but I think that discounted fares and free transfers for people who are using multiple transit operators is a good start.” Earlier this year, the TTC joined Ontario’s “one fare” program, which allows users to transfer more affordably and seamlessly from the TTC to the GO Train or Brampton, MiWay, York and Durham regional transit systems.

For those who fall outside the area currently serviced by high-functioning public transit, there may be a custom fix. Hop In, a Markham startup, helps employers in sub-convenient locations better connect with employees by crafting data-driven commuting solutions, like rideshare and shuttles.

Set the agenda

“I’m a technologist so maybe it’s weird for me to say, but technology is not going to fix everything,” says McBride. “I think people, procurement and thoughtful policy should precede technology investments.”

Earlier this year, the Toronto Region Board of Trade announced a task force to “identify and champion practical, high-impact solutions for Toronto’s congestion crisis.” They’re expected to present their report by the end of 2024.

McBride said, who is one of the task force’s 21 members, hopes “the recommendations touch on various facets of what it means to reduce congestion. It can’t just be about pushing more cars down the road. Because that might, at best, buy you another three or four years, and then you’re just back to the same place.”

Even implementing 20 percent of the recommendations could yield a 80 percent improvement, McBride says. “There are ways to fix this,” he adds. “It isn’t an intractable problem.”

But like Toronto traffic itself, these fixes aren’t moving fast. And, until the situation starts to improve, when you’re stuck in gridlock wondering, Is this my jam? Remember, it is your jam. “I think we always assume that traffic is someone else’s fault. But the reality is that we all contribute to it,” says McBride.

And, according to Gebresselassie, that also means we can also be part of the solution. “We’re not completely helpless. We can play a role in reducing traffic congestion, for instance, by driving less.”

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Image source: iStock