University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

The Better Way? Not So Fast

Tolls are better than transit for easing traffic gridlock over the long term, researchers say

Toronto politicians have long described transit as a “decongestant” because buses, streetcars and subways get people out of their cars. But a new study on driving patterns in American cities, released recently by a pair of U of T economists, suggests that adding transit service doesn’t relieve traffic gridlock in the long term.

The research, by Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, expands on a long-observed phenomenon: that adding highway capacity doesn’t reduce traffic congestion and the additional lanes just fill up over time. The main reason: individuals change their driving behaviour, triggering even more traffic. “Build it,” says Turner, “and they will drive.”

Download the study by Duranton and Turner:
The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion

Adding transit doesn’t short-circuit traffic buildup either, Turner concludes. Drivers that give up their cars for transit are eventually replaced by new drivers. But he notes the study shouldn’t be interpreted as a case against transit because the provision of additional buses, in particular, allows more people to take trips on existing transportation infrastructure at little extra cost.

Duranton and Turner calculate the benefits drivers gain from new roads in the U.S. and conclude that they are well below the cost of providing the roads. Extending subways and streetcar routes are also expensive and result in little gain for the average commuter.

So what is the best public policy response to gridlock? The authors suggest that the City of London has the right idea, using peak-hour traffic tolls to dissuade drivers from taking their cars to work. “These findings strengthen the case for congestion pricing as a policy response to traffic congestion,” their report concludes.

The study was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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  1. 4 Responses to “ The Better Way? Not So Fast ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    The researchers John Lorinc cites are sadly misinformed about the gridlock-reducing scheme erected in London. I say "erected" due to the phenomenal expense of intrusive monitoring cameras and 50-foot masts now placed at every street and lane entering central London.
    Tolls to pass London city gates were appropriate in medieval times, but not today.

    The London Congestion Charge is a stealth tax on the general public who are not getting into their cars, vans and lorries every day for the pure pleasure of rush hour traffic! They need their vehicles. Public transport doesn't carry a load of lumber, and bicycle lanes do not help the infirm. Take note Toronto!

    Nancy Bezoari
    BA 1977 Victoria
    London, England

  3. Sarah Thomson says:

    I'm glad this article supports my congestion, or rush hour, toll idea.
    Sarah Thomson
    Candidate for Mayor, Toronto

  4. Mark Dewdney says:

    When it comes to tolls on ALL roads, I'm not in favour. However, if one were to provide an alternate rush-hour route (even just one lane, not one in each direction, inbound in the mornings, then outbound in the evenings) with a toll that's something I'd use.

    It would have to be reasonably priced (say less than a transit fare per trip) but I would pay $2 a day ($50 a month max) to use that "true express" lane.

    Something running right down the middle of the DVP (just off the top of my head, and yes, I know there would be serious construction and infrastructure issues, but it beats a tunnel, ask Bostononians) would advertise itself. Imagine being stuck in gridlock, then seeing some grinning fool zooming along past you while you suck exhaust.

    For me, this gives people a choice, which is a huge deal. Forced to use alternatives, some consumers will refuse, and the existing problem snowballs. Give us a choice, and some of us will opt for the "new" method, if only to try it out. At least it's got the benefit of novelty.

    So? Am I full of it? Is this a good idea? A bad idea? Why?

  5. Anthony says:

    Anyone who's used the 407 can see the benefits of that option. The problem with the privately owned 407, however, is the revenue generated does nothing to build a sustainable transportation system.

    Kudos to Sarah Thompson for showing leadership on this issue. For those interested in hearing from elected officials who've also shown leadership on road pricing, check out Transport Futures 2010, at