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Case Study


Traffic and global population have all increased rapidly since the 1960s. The world’s population is currently at its highest-ever peak, and global car sales have risen by approximately 90 percent over the last 25 years. Together, this has led to unprecedented traffic congestion in most urban centers worldwide.

The following report explores the problem of congestion and will demonstrate how Canadian communities specifically identify, measure, and act in response to the congestion challenge (the full report can be found here). The first section of the report defines congestion using a literary scan of definitions that have been published by various traffic organizations. We find that the congestion is a layered term with two prominent aspects: a physical one and a relative one. Many traffic organizations define congestion in terms of capacity, often pointing to congestion as limited road space being taken up, and the point at which one driver impedes of progress of another. The other aspect that is cited among traffic organizations when defining congestion is that it is a relative phenomenon. The vehicle user’s experience defines congestion as a problem if he or she deems it to be so. If there is a delay in traffic, it is the driver who remarks that congestion is a problem. Taken together, traffic congestion, as a definition, takes into account both how marginal increases in vehicle numbers on roadways impact each other, and how drivers of those vehicles perceive to be affected.

The second section explains how congestion is measured. There are many indicators available to quantify and measure congestion. Some indicators measure congestion intensity, some measure travel time, others measure fuel consumption statistics and multi-modal delays across a wider transportation network. However, we’ve found that there is no one congestion measurement that comprehensively address every challenge and measurements are often dependent on the environment. For some communities, there will inevitably be more focus on urban-related measurements such as average traffic speed during intense peak periods. Conversely, more rural or less-compact communities may, for example, hone their efforts on indicators relating to commute duration. Each indicator may be of some value to any given community, but some may be more applicable than others.

In the third section, findings are presented from our traffic congestion survey completed by 29 municipalities and organizations across Canada. Most survey respondents representing different communities answered that congestion is a problem and most have a means of measuring congestion in order to better grasp and tackle the challenge. Consequently, every surveyed community reported to have implemented some type of method to reduce congestion. The type of measures used, however, varied. A majority of respondents have implemented most of the measures listed in our survey, including bike lane and roadway expansions, while three of these measures have not been as commonly implemented. These three – HOV/HOT lanes, pricing measures, and smart parking – have not been widely considered or implemented. This may be a result of a common characteristic shared between these three measures: they are relatively costly both financially and politically. In contrast to other measures such as bike lanes expansion and implementation of public intelligent systems, installing HOV/HOT lanes is not only more expensive to finance, but also less palatable to the everyday voter.

While these measures were unlikely to be implemented by the majority of respondents, their likelihood of having considered these measures varied based on whether or not the respondents have a congestion reduction plan in place. Interestingly, only half of respondents have a plan. Those who do not are more likely to have never considered pricing strategies, and those that do are more likely to have at least discussed them. Having a congestion reduction plan in place may indicate that communities have concretely identified congestion as a challenge in their communities. Having a plan symbolizes a thorough and formal approach to congestion management, meaning that most measures available to minimize the problem would at least have been considered. Intuitively, communities with a formal plan will be more likely to identify congestion as a problem, and are therefore more likely to consider each possible reduction measure.

Among measures that were more likely to be considered, the implementation of bike lanes and roadway expansion techniques were almost universal among respondents. Again, introducing the variable of having a congestion plan elicits a notable trend. Every respondent who answered ‘yes’ to having a congestion reduction plan had implemented both bike lane and roadway expansion techniques. We believe this is because of an intersection of two factors listed previously in this section. First, bike lane and roadway expansion techniques are relatively simple: they are significantly less costly financially and politically. Second, those who have a plan are more likely to examine each measure. Those two factors combined lends credence to the overall idea that implementing innovative and complex measures requires financial and political capital, while also requiring a broader, concrete framework of reducing traffic congestion. While not necessarily true for all cases, we find that there is a link between these factors. Regarding implementation, we find that communities are more likely to implement traffic congestion reduction measures if their population size is larger and if their population density is higher. This seems to be intuitive: if there are more people, there is a greater need to improve traffic flow to be able to move more of them from origin to destination. Moreover, if there are more people within a smaller area, the likelihood for congestion is higher in both physical and relative terms: limited road space will be increasingly taken up, and more people will recognize congestion as an issue relative to what they expect. For measurement, most communities have used their traffic data to update and make their traffic signal phasing more efficient. Interestingly, many communities also use the information they gather to plan for future alternative measures to improve congestion in their communities. 

Lastly, in this report we showcase innovate solutions – HOT lanes, road charge programs, and smart parking – that leading North American communities are implementing in order to address the congestion challenge. We demonstrate that despite political and financial hurdles, these are measures that have been implemented successfully by other communities.  Through deliberate planning and consultations, these projects and innovative solutions have gained significant momentum and have demonstrated signs of reducing congestion. Their true value has yet to be realized, but as congestion continues to escalate in Canada and elsewhere in the world, innovative approaches like these should, at the very least, be considered to address this growing challenge.