Let’s Make War on the Car

Maybe it’s because of their surnames or more likely it’s because of their electoral base, but the Ford brothers have always been big supporters of drivers and driving. Rob Ford supplied the slogan – “the war on the car has got to stop” – and Doug Ford put it into practice, with policies such as cancellation of the licence plate fee, ongoing reductions in the province’s gasoline tax, an advertising campaign directed against the federal government’s carbon tax, and decisions to build Highway 413 on the western flank of the GTA and the Bradford Bypass linking highways 400 and 404 just north of the GTA.

Protecting the Environment

As I’ve often argued, labels and narratives matter a lot in politics and policy. What Ford attacks as a war on the car, his opponents promote as protecting the environment by reducing congestion, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, I stand with the environmentalists. I watched two environmental webinars yesterday, Transport Futures’ on Stockholm’s experience with a congestion tax, and Environmental Defence’s on the implications of the Ford Government’s reversal of its decision to permit land development in the Greenbelt.

Swedish for Common Sense

As discussed by Gunnar Soderholm, one of its key architects, the Stockholm congestion tax is a successful policy experiment. It was put in place in 2007 after a 6-month trial period and then a referendum, in which it was narrowly approved by voters in Stockholm. The tax is collected on almost all vehicles entering and leaving central Stockholm during peak hours, the main exceptions being public transit buses and cars used by people with disabilities. The tax has reduced congestion and improved air quality in Stockholm, and it brings in approximately $150 million Canadian annually, which is used to improve public transit and highways in the Stockholm area.

Closer to my home, New York City appears to be on the verge on implementing a congestion tax, assuming a court challenge launched by nearby residents in New Jersey is overcome. I look forward to writing about the New York City congestion tax and its implications for Toronto.

Learning about the Stockholm congestion tax raises the question of whether Toronto could introduce such a measure. While Doug Ford is premier, it won’t happen. But if he is defeated, his Liberal or NDP successor should consider it. It would significantly reduce traffic congestion in the downtown core, improve air quality, and provide a major source of funding for the transit system. Funding transit from congestion tax revenues would reduce pressure on the province’s capital budget.

From the standpoint of the congestion tax, Stockholm has the benefit of being an archipelago, so that the central city can only be accessed by 18 bridges or expressways, all of which are tolled. Toronto’s geography is closer to the “featureless plain” of urban economics, with many more access points to the central city. Therefore, more toll points would be required. However, London, England has a congestion tax, so it should be logistically possible in Toronto.

One Carefree Highway

The late Gordon Lightfoot sang about a carefree highway, but he must not have been referring to those in the GTA, with one exception. The Ford Government is proposing to build the Bradford Bypass, a 16 kilometre east-west highway north of Toronto to link the north-south highways 400 and 404, and Highway 413, a ring road on the western side of the GTA, linking Highway 400 at its east end and Highway 401 at its west end. All the existing highways (400, 401, and 404) have lots of traffic. The main justification given for Highway 413 is to reduce congestion for truck traffic serving manufacturers. The arguments against the highways are that they degrade the environment, destroy farmland, and will soon become congested anyway due to induced demand.

The one carefree GTA highway is Highway 407, the electronic toll road. The 1999 privatization contract for Highway 407 gives its operator a 99-year franchise that is essentially carte blanche to set tolls. Its tolls for trucks are so high that most operators use the congested Highway 401. Environmental Defence has a very interesting proposal to have the government subsidize truckers using Highway 407, which would be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than building a new highway. For example, the Government could set the toll for trucks equivalent to that for passenger cars, and it could rebate to truckers the difference between the higher toll they charged by Highway 407 and the toll for passenger cars. The environmentalists’ political strategy is to use the environmental review process as well Freedom of Information inquiries about Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass to create such strong public opposition that the Ford Government will drop the two projects, just as it reversed its decision to permit land development in the Greenbelt.

There is a Choice

As I’ve discussed previously, Doug Ford and his Government have a vision of the future oriented around the automobile. There are alternatives, such as congestion pricing in the central core and making better use of existing infrastructure. We need to develop plans and to advocate for them over the next three years, and to elect a government with a different vision of urban development in 2026.

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