They’re the stressed-out gladiators in the Toronto region’s daily game of gridlock.
Up to 70 per cent of Toronto area car commuters are prepared to pay user taxes or tolls if it buys them some relief from their daily grind — a commute that two-thirds identified as harmful to their quality of life, according to a study being released Saturday by the Pembina Institute, a Canadian sustainability think-tank with an office in Toronto
Eighty-five per cent would consider alternative forms of commuting if they had pay-as-you-drive insurance, something that’s not available in Ontario. An overwhelming 94 per cent in a poll of 1,000 drivers said they would like to work from home.
The online research by Environics offers fresh insights into the complexities and sometimes contradictory behaviours of the region’s road warriors.
“There’s a huge interest in the alternatives to the standard five-day commute,” said Pembina’s Cherise Burda, author of the report, Drivers’ Choice: A survey of drivers in the GTA on options to manage gridlock and fund rapid transit in the region.
The study also proves that suburban commuters are prepared to pay for transit improvements that would finance those alternatives, she said.
“We’re looking at up to 58 per cent of drivers supporting a variety of different (tax and toll) tools. The most interesting part is how that goes up to 70 per cent once you say it’s going to be dedicated to building rapid transit,” Burda said.
The policy implications are significant, she said, given that Metrolinx has until June 2013 to produce an investment strategy to raise $40 billion over the next 20 years for the transit improvements cited in its regional transportation plan, The Big Move.
Released in 2008, it recommended a $50 billion regional transit expansion that would ensure that 75 per cent of residents find themselves living within 2 kilometres of a dedicated rapid-transit line, up from what was then 42 per cent.
The Pembina report shows that between 56 and 58 per cent of drivers would support road user fees such as tolls, paid express lanes and parking taxes as long as the charges were dedicated to improving transit.
Slightly fewer — 54 per cent — said they could support a 1 per cent Toronto region sales tax, and 46 per cent supported a 2-cent regional gas tax.
“Our politicians shouldn’t be fearful of implementing some of these choices. They’ve been done elsewhere, where the congestion and traffic issues weren’t as critical as they are in Toronto,” said Burda, citing the example of Los Angeles County. A 2008 referendum there supported a 30-year, 0.5 per cent regional sales tax to raise money for transit and road improvements.
The Pembina research differs from other polls, including one by the Toronto Star last spring. The Star poll found a cross-section of commuters were overwhelmingly opposed to tax and toll schemes to pay for transit. But it also showed that 55 per cent support a congestion charge to drive into the downtown.
Of course, downtowners wouldn’t mind a congestion charge — they aren’t going to be paying it, said Burda.
“We went out and asked the toughest element — the drivers living 30 minutes or more away. I was really surprised the numbers were as high as they were for just straight-up willingness to pay,” she said.
The average one-way commute among respondents was 43 minutes.
The report debunks the stereotype of drivers as selfish, thoughtless SUV owners brandishing a middle finger at cyclists and streetcars, Burda said.
One-third said they already had access to GO Transit or the subway, but chose to drive anyway, citing the need for work or to run errands and transit inconveniences such as transfers and lengthy commute times.
But 70 per cent said they would consider transit if there was a subway or LRT along their route, and a full 40 per cent said they would be “very interested.”
The online poll, which included descriptions and photos of various forms of rapid transit, found 68 per cent would be somewhat or very likely to use a subway if it were available; 69 per cent would be likely to use an LRT.
It also showed that drivers would get out of their cars for the right financial incentives.
More than 60 per cent indicated they would change their behaviour if they were offered a provincial tax credit worth $150 to $250 annually for alternative commuting expenses, such as gas and parking for carpooling, transit passes or bikes. The federal government currently offers a 15 per cent income tax credit for regular transit riders.
About the same number said they would be somewhat or very likely to leave the car at home if they were offered a cash incentive from their employer equivalent to what the employer would have spent on a parking spot.
WHAT DRIVERS SAID
• Parking: 70% of respondents get free at-work parking; 60% said they would take advantage of a parking cash-out program where an employer would compensate employees for not driving to work.
• Paying to save time: 55% said they would pay $2 to shave their commute time by one-third; only 30% cent said they would pay $8 to save that much time
• Toll lanes: About 70% said they would pay $2 to use an express lane; only about 30% would pay $10 to use such a lane
• Road warriors: 70% of the drivers surveyed took the car five days a week and two-thirds said their commute was stressful
• Their route and ride: 84% use a major highway; 56% don’t have access to rapid transit
Driver’s Choice: A survey of drivers in the GTA on options to manage gridlock and fund rapid transit in the region.
ABOUT THE POLL
Environics surveyed an online panel of 1,000 drivers who commute at least half an hour one way. The average commute time among respondents was 43 minutes one way.
This type of research is considered highly accurate, although the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, which represents the Canadian public opinion polling industry, does not permit reporting of margin of error for this type of polling, said Sarah Roberton of Environics.
The responses for the Pembina report were gathered between Jan. 18 and 26.
The Pembina study cost $80,000. Support for the project came from Metrolinx, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the George Cedric Metcalf Foundation