Transportation in Toronto and Beyond: From Ideology to Reality

Commentary, Transportation, Wendell Cox


Large city officials have been lobbying for a major program of federal transit subsidies for years. The push will likely to intensify after the federal election. A principal resource in this campaign will likely be the Toronto Board of Trade’s third annual Scorecard on Prosperity, which finds Toronto’s transportation system to be among the worst in the world, ranking 19th out of 23 metropolitan areas. Other metropolitan areas also ranked poorly, such as Montreal at 12th, Calgary at 13th and Vancouver at 21st.
However, a deeper look yields difficulties with the Board of Trade report.
Automobiles dominate travel in all but two of the metropolitan areas (Hong Kong and Tokyo). Yet, only two of 11 indicators involve automobiles. Eight relate to non-automobile modes such as transit (one deals with freight). The Board of Trade comparisons are skewed because they give disproportionate weight to modes that are relatively minor in metropolitan mobility.
The Scorecard on Prosperity ranks metropolitan areas by the proportion of workers not driving to work. This includes people who use transit, walk, or use bicycles to get to work. Paris is ranked second at 73.7%. However, the Scorecard on Prosperity uses data for the city of Paris only, which has only 20 percent of the metropolitan area population. INSEE, the French national statistics agency data shows that far less, 51% of workers, do not drive in Ile-de-France, which generally corresponds to the metropolitan area.  A similar problem exists in London, where the share of workers not driving corresponds to the Greater London Authority, which represents only two-thirds of the metropolitan area as defined by the Board of Trade.
However, the greatest difficulty with the Scorecard is the implied belief that greater reliance on transit is preferable. In fact, transit is slower than cars for the majority of trips. Travel time needs to decrease to encourage metropolitan economic growth, as research at the University of Paris indicates. There is probably no more important transportation indicator regarding the economy.
A Globe and Mail article rightly expresses particular concern that Toronto’s round-trip average work trip time ranks last at 80 minutes per day. However, at least two of the metropolitan areas had longer work trip travel times. The average work trip travel time in the Tokyo metropolitan area was 96 minutes in 2003 (the latest data available), according to the Japan Statistics Bureau. The Board of Trade found a lower number, probably because it relied on the Tokyo Statistical Yearbook, which provides data for the "Tokyo metropolis," which is not the Tokyo metropolitan area, but rather the prefecture of Tokyo, which represents only one-third of the population. The Board of Trade failed to find a number for Hong Kong, which the government reported at 92 minutes in 2002. Yet, these travel time laggards rank first and second in the Board of Trade rankings.
It should be a source of embarrassment that Dallas-Fort Worth, a bane of urban planners and with less than half the Toronto density, should have a work trip travel time over one third less and one fifth less, respectively, than Calgary and Vancouver, the highest ranked Canadian metropolitan areas. It’s worse than that. Among all of the large American metropolitan areas, in or out of The Scorecard on Prosperity, all but New York have better work trip travel times.
Except in the romantic minds of planners, little of the present car travel demand can be replaced by transit. Further, in virtually all of the metropolitan areas ranking above Toronto, the trajectory has been toward cars, so that the present figures are less favorable to transit than they would have been a decade or two ago.
For transport to make the greatest possible contribution to economic growth and job creation, the transport system must provide quick mobility throughout the entire labor market (metropolitan area). Transit favoring ideology will not do. The problem is evident.  The $8 billion just committed by Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty to build an Eglinton Avenue subway should be used to reduce travel times as much as possible. A huge expenditure on a single street will not do that.
So long as ideology trumps reality, Toronto’s calcified traffic will put it at a competitive disadvantage. The focus should be on results — the time it takes to get to work, rather than on means — whether the trip is by car or transit.