Should Canada charge drivers to use roads during rush hour?

Chances are if you drive in a city, you are familiar with the pain of rush hour: the highway that slows to a parking lot, your car creeping along at 10 km/h  maybe 20 if you are lucky.

This week, a New York plan to fight congestion by putting a price on driving into central Manhattan came one step closer to fruition. If it becomes law, drivers will pay an automatic toll starting in 2021 whenever they drive into that specific area. The exact price will depend on the day and time.

It’s known as congestion pricing and while it’s common around the world, it hasn’t really caught on in North America. Here’s why some experts say it should be viewed as the solution to both Canadian congestion woes and the high cost of improving infrastructure, even as they worry such a change is not likely in the near-term.

There are some cities, New York being one of them, that are unafraid to be bold and willing to try new things, eager to go first, says Shoshanna Saxe, a professor of sustainable urban infrastructure in the University of Toronto’s civil and mineral engineering department.

Toronto has the dubious distinction of being one of four Canadian cities in the top 100 of the TomTom Traffic Index global congestion ranking. Vancouver leads the pack in the 34th slot, while Toronto comes in at 73, Montreal at 86, and Ottawa rounds it out at 91.

How congestion pricing works

Most are familiar with road tolls. You pay a fee to drive a highway or a series of highways and those tolls tend to go up or down depending on how far you drive on a given road. Congestion pricing tends to be more zone-based.

Although the exact systems vary by city, the goals are the same: reducing the number of drivers clogging up the roads. Singapore, which has had congestion pricing long enough to work through some of the bugs, moved to an electronic pricing system in 1998.

Singapore found that by putting higher pricing during rush hour times, it was able to more evenly distribute traffic throughout the day. As a result, travel speeds during rush hour rose 20 km/h. And when officials noticed people starting to speed in the moments before the pricing was about to rise, they introduced five-minute buffer zones and people safely slowed down.

In Stockholm, the pricing is specifically for the citys centre. People are charged when they drive in and they are charged when they drive out. The pricing system, which has been in place since 2006, is linked with a drop in traffic, an increase in public transit use, as well as decreases in traffic pollution.

Amborski remembers when Toronto toyed with introducing a toll on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway that would have brought in roughly $200 million each year. It’s likely, he says, that different councillors would want to use that revenue in different ways and not necessarily for transit.

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