Technology could tame the traffic beast

It’s nice to see that the media are continuing to ask some critical questions with respect to a highly debated topic: traffic congestion in our cities. Yesterday’s article by Toronto Star reporter Tyler Hamilton asks the question that city officials appear to be ducking: “Is it time we started charging drivers to take their cars into the city?”

While the inconvenience of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is most obvious to us, the hidden economic and other quality of life issues related to wasted fuel and productivity, polluted air and poorer health, and reduced economic growth linger beneath the surface of this issue. We’ve reported on how other cities are moving to deal with the traffic problem. Singapore (in 1998), London (in 2003), and Stockholm (in 2006) have already improved traffic in targeted areas by an average of 30% after installing congestion pricing systems. Other cities such as New York and Montreal are also closely studying congestion-pricing models as solutions to their traffic woes.

What’s Toronto doing to curb the traffic? Apparently not much. On the issue of congestion, there is sadly little news emerging from Mr. Miller’s office. At the moment, he’s focused on the city’s current fiscal crisis, looking at conventional, short-term solutions such as raising property taxes and seeking additional funding from Ottawa and the province. In fact, it does not appear that Toronto is closely studying how innovative technologies can be used to provide an optimal traffic solution that benefits everyone from drivers to governments. Miller appears to have set the goal of improving public transit as his first priority, arguing that implementing tolls will unfairly penalize drivers who do not have reasonable alternatives.

What we need from the City of Toronto is leadership on the traffic issue – the kind of leadership that Mayor Ken Livingstone has demonstrated in the City of London. Risking a major political backlash from drivers and business owners he moved ahead and implemented a system that is helping ease the traffic pressures on the City. And it’s paying off. Michael Bloomberg appears envious. He’s said to be actively working on a plan for New York City and he’s publicly recognized the issue as a problem that city officials are working on.

What we need are not the same tired schemes that in the end fail to address some of the fundamental issues of the traffic congestion issue. Raising property taxes, building more roads and increasing public transit access won’t address some of the fundamental issues – the need to change driver behaviour and more equitably pass on the cost of traffic infrastructure to those who are enjoying it the most.

Tyler Hamilton in his article references Skymeter, one of the companies here at the MaRS Centre. Skymeter has a very different plan with no ground infrastructure for municipalities to install, relying instead on the GPS network. Over time, a Skymeter-type system could profoundly impact everything from how we issue parking tickets to how we pay for traffic services within a municipality. Companies such as Skymeter have a bold vision for how we can fundamentally address many of Toronto’s issues with respect to congestion, vehicle emissions and public transit.

What’s ironic is that while prospective cities across the United States, Europe and Asia have invited Skymeter to demonstrate their technology solution and the initial feedback appears quite positive, this company located just steps away from Toronto City Hall can’t seem to get an audience with local officials. Perhaps we’ll just have to wait for Mr. Bloomberg in New York to validate such a solution before we think it’s good enough.