Road rationing systems that limit drivers’ access to certain roadways depending on day of the week are touted as possible solutions to congestion and pollution.
If you’re like the majority of Torontonians, you wake up each weekday, get in your car, and slog to work through the city’s traffic-laden avenues.
More than 80 per cent of Canadians drive to their jobs, and here in the GTA millions lose time for work, family and personal pursuits as their commutes grind to a halt on clogged roads.
But what if, one morning, you woke up and realized you weren’t allowed to drive that day? Or at least not for a certain period of time, when the roads are busiest? You’d be required, by law, to find another way to work — be it public transit, riding a bike, or even walking — and would face a fine if you didn’t comply.
It’s already happened across the pond in Paris, where concerns about smog have ushered in a licence-plate restriction system known as “road space rationing.” On Mondays, only vehicles with odd-numbered licence plates can traverse the city. On Tuesdays, drivers with even-numbered plates get their turn behind the wheel.
Beyond curtailing pollution, road rationing is touted as a way to reduce congestion, and various cities around the world have implemented versions of it, most of them in Latin America.
No such policy exists in Canada, but should Toronto or the GTA consider it?
“It’s a very good idea,” Khandker Habib, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto, told the Star.
But Habib, who specializes in transportation planning, cautions that road rationing alone is no “silver bullet” for the GTA’s congestion woes.
“This type of policy should not be considered in isolation. It should be coupled with others,” he explained, specifically pointing to road pricing.
Road pricing is a strategy increasingly employed worldwide to divert drivers to other modes of transport, although it remains controversial in Ontario.
In California, high-occupancy toll lanes in greater Los Angeles and San Diego charge rates that change constantly in keeping with the time of day and traffic volume. Up the coast, San Franciscans are debating a $3 fee for driving into the downtown core.
Road rationing, coupled with road pricing, Habib said, could ensure that Torontonians move out of their cars and into a well-funded public transit system, or onto bikes that speed along nicely built and smartly-coordinated cycling lanes.
However, Habib noted, however smart it is in theory, road rationing has also led to some adverse effects.
A paper prepared for Metrolinx in September 2012, for example, detailed the experience of Sao Paolo, Brazil, which brought in road space rationing in 1997 but phased it out the following year.
Despite initial successes “in reducing road trips and congestion, including through a shift to public transit and an increase in carpooling,” the report noted, “benefits (were) offset over time.”
As also happened in Mexico City, Sao Paolo’s higher-income households simply bought additional cars with a different final digit on the licence plate, “in order to circumvent the rotation system.”
“In addition, the implementation of road space rationing was not accompanied by any new investments in public transit to support the desired mode shift,” the report said.
When asked about the case study, Metrolinx spokesperson Alex Burke wrote in an email that road space rationing “was included in preliminary investigations of international transit practices. However, it was not considered as a viable revenue-generating tool.”
In Beijing, a licence-based rotation system implemented for the 2008 Summer Olympics was kept in place after the Games because of its benefits, including reducing traffic by one-third and cutting emissions by 40 per cent.
Habib thinks stellar results might be attainable in Toronto if the city’s leaders give attention to creating incentives to use other modes of transportation and consider all the economic ramifications.
“Not all people drive out of choice. Some people are forced to, as maybe alternative services are not available to them,” he said. “So some people will be changing their mode of transportation, some people will be changing their routes, and in the long term it will affect their land use. People may even change their location of home or activities.”
Road rationing “can bring harmony, theoretically, but there are lots of other practical concerns. Why can’t you implement a road pricing policy?” he asked. “You can probably understand the reason. It’s not about only transportation. It goes beyond that. It goes to politics.”