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The Globe and Mail

Tory aims to tackle traffic. It won’t be easy

John Tory says that fighting traffic congestion will be an urgent priority when he takes office next month. He wants to crack down on those inconsiderate drivers who stop in curb lanes during rush hour. He wants to cut the number of lanes blocked off for months on end when buildings are going up. He promises to chair a construction co-ordination committee that will aim to reduce traffic disruption from construction projects.

Rather than appoint a traffic czar for Toronto, "I'm going to be my own traffic czar," he told radio host Jerry Agar of Newstalk 1010 this week. He said he wants to get working on the problem right away and hopes drivers will be able to notice a change as soon as, "say, early in the new year."

All of this will be sweet music to automobile commuters who spend hours each week on the road with knuckles whitening on the wheel while smoke issues from their ears. Traffic congestion was a big issue in the campaign for mayor, with all the top candidates putting out proposals to deal with it. Drivers will climb onto the roofs of their cars and cheer if Mr. Tory can make traffic move a bit more smoothly.

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That, unfortunately, is easier said than done. Just about all big, successful cities have bad traffic. "If you want to go to a place without congestion, go to Cleveland or go to Detroit," says Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works and infrastructure committee under Mayor Rob Ford.

If traffic has worsened in Toronto, it is partly because the city is booming, with building cranes crowding the skyline and tens of thousands of newcomers coming to live here. It is also because the city is spending close to a billion dollars a year on fixing its aging infrastructure. Replacing streetcar tracks, repairing old sewer pipes, putting in new gas lines and, of course, resurfacing the roads themselves – all these things can disrupt traffic. Drivers often complain that the roads are in bad shape then complain again when they are being fixed.

Managing the city's growth while keeping traffic moving is a complex problem. Mr. Tory is far from the first to try to tackle it. Many of his ideas have been tried or are about to be tried.

A special committee to co-ordinate construction projects? City hall already has a Major Capital Infrastructure Coordination Office. It holds monthly meetings with city divisions and quarterly meetings bringing in organizations such as Toronto Hydro and the Toronto Transit Commission to minimize road and lane closures. To make sure everyone knows what projects are planned, the city puts out an online map showing where and when work is to be done.

Cracking down on curb-lane hogs? The city raised the fine for stopping in curb lanes during rush hour to $150 from $60 at the start of this year. Officials say it seems to be working. The number of tickets being issued is down sharply.

Those lanes blocked by construction hoardings? Many modern downtown condo towers are being built right up to the sidewalk, which makes for a livelier streetscape and allows for more density. But it means builders need to use part of the roadway. The city is investigating whether higher fees for occupying lanes would get developers to speed up their work and free up the lanes sooner.

How about getting traffic lights better synchronized? The city has been retiming lights on major corridors to match the actual, observed speed of traffic, cutting down on vehicle stops and delays. It is also looking into new "smart" traffic-signalling systems like one developed at the University of Toronto.

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The city could and should do more. Drivers are right to be frustrated about such things as lanes blocked by orange-and-black cones when no actual work is being done or electronic traffic signs that often carry nothing more than warnings to fasten your seat belt.

Stephen Buckley, general manager of Transportation Services, says it is a good thing that the mayor-elect is promising to throw his weight behind the ongoing effort by city staff to ease congestion. "The downside is we'll have additional scrutiny," he says. "The upside is we'll have someone who I think is going to be supportive of putting resources toward doing things better."

But even with a new, more competent mayor fully engaged in the problem, any improvements that drivers see are bound to be marginal at best. Toronto has a lot of cars and a limited amount of road space. Improving the transit system is going to take time and money. The big fixes – such as road tolls, road pricing, sharply higher parking rates or all-day parking bans on major streets – are bound to be unpopular with motorists or merchants.

For all his passion on the issue, Mr. Tory has shown no sign he is contemplating the sweeping measures that might make a real difference.

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