Updated December 8, 2014: This article has been updated with a list of the intersections where traffic signal retiming has been done in 2014 and where it is planned for 2015. See the end of the article.
Original article from December 5, 2014:
Mayor John Tory unveiled a six-point plan to tackle congestion problems in Toronto. The text of his remarks is not yet available on his city web page, but the points were tweeted from his account @johntoryTO:
- Strict Enforcement Of “No Stopping” Regulations On Major Roads
- Enhance Road Closure Reporting
- Launch A Multi-Organizational Traffic Enforcement Team – Deploy 40 additional cameras on arterial roads, Another 80 in 2016
- Accelerate The 2015 Traffic Signal Retiming Program From 250 Signals To 350 Signals
- Establish More Stringent Criteria & Higher Fees For The Closure Of Lanes And Boulevards By Private Development Projects
- Speed up Public Sector Construction Projects By Extending Work Hours And Reducing The Duration Of Construction On Major Roadways.
Mayor Tory will also head up a co-ordination committee to ensure that conflicts between construction projects, service closures (such as subway shutdowns), and major events are avoided.
This all sounds good, in the tub thumping way one might expect of a former radio talk show host for whom the details are always someone else’s problem. What are the likely benefits? Will people actually see an improvement in their travel times?
Noticeable by its absence is any reference to Transit Signal Priority. Reduced congestion will help all road users, including transit, but there are transit-specific improvements that should be addressed.
There are three vital points that must be acknowledged for any plan to address traffic:
- Congestion is a GTHA-wide issue that extends deeply into both Toronto’s suburbs and into the 905 regions beyond. Tinkering with a few streets downtown will not address the vast majority of the problem, but too much of the discussion seems to focus on this small part of the road network.
- Congestion does not affect only a few peak hours a day, but a much broader period including weekends. The trucking industry, for example, is an all day operation affected just as much, if not more, by “off-peak” congestion as it is during the official “rush hours”.
- No congestion-fighting regime is possible without a clear philosophy regarding the use of street space. If every squeaky wheel gets an exception for their business, their attraction, then “congestion fighting” is little more than a quaint slogan.
Toronto must recognize that we cannot “fix” congestion with a few tweaks here, a bit of new technology there. Always there is the sense that we can get “something for nothing”, that our problems will go away without someone making a sacrifice. That’s the sort of dream world that brings us tax-free service improvements and rapid transit construction with mythical pots of other people’s money.
The solutions, such as they may be, to congestion downtown will be very different from those in the suburbs, and a one-size-fits-all approach transplanted between locations will not work.
Enforcing No Stopping Rules
This is a wonderful idea, on paper, but it ignores the fact that many problem locations are occupied by scofflaws of “no parking” regulations. Moreover, “no stopping” tends to be a peak period restriction that is of no benefit in locations with off-peak congestion.
Two problems come immediately to mind. First, the city will need the services of tow trucks capable of hauling away substantial vehicles such as shredding trucks, not just private cars. The city has more than one tow truck at its service. Drivers need to see disappearing vehicles as a regular event just as would-be TTC freeloaders need to see fare inspectors on PoP routes. A few tows as a photo op on one street conveniently near City Hall won’t make a dent in congestion anywhere.
Second, any benefit that might be obtained is nullified if the curb lane contains excepted uses such as taxi stands. If the idea is to regain the capacity of the curb lane, the first thing that must vanish are locations where the lane can be legally blocked. The flip side of this issue is that at some locations, all that is really needed is greater capacity near intersections to ease congestion for turns. The City must trade off competing demands for road space and optimize how it is used.
Clearing the curb lanes also affects designs for cycling because bike lanes need a continuous right-of-way, not one that appears and vanishes as might be convenient for road designers. Tory is silent on how provisions for cycling will fit into the overall priorities for use of road space.
The rules about stopping need to be clearly understood, including by agencies who consider themselves above the law (Canada Post and its subsidiaries). Is the Post Office an agent of the Crown with the right to tie up their horse and cart anywhere they please, or are they a private company?
What is the status the many utility companies who may be working on underground plant, but equally likely may be paying a call on a customer in an adjacent building? They have the right to dig anywhere, but do they have the right to park anywhere?
At midday on December 4, I rode the King car from Liberty Village east, and there was not one block in my travels right through to Parliament Street without vehicles parked in “no parking” areas. Not stopped. Not making a delivery. Parked. The city could make a fortune in fines, but for motorists, this is just a form of civic roulette on the assumption that fines (let alone tows) are so rare as to be a routine cost.
Commercial scofflaws pose an added problem because they treat parking tickets as a business expense, and may even have them cancelled. Quite bluntly, towing, seizing the commercial value of their vehicle (and its time sensitive contents) is the only message they will understand.
This raises the problem of how deliveries can be handled in the older part of the city, and that is a discussion we must all have collectively about how streets are intended to operate. If deliveries and the economic activity they support are so important that they cannot be shifted in location or time, and take precedence over traffic flow, well, don’t complain about the lack of road capacity.
If by “no parking” we really mean “we want this lane kept clear”, then upgrade the ban to “no stopping” with appropriate penalties including towing.
Enhanced Road Closure Reporting
Mayor Tory complains that road and subway shutdowns are poorly co-ordinated complaining about
“the Gardiner closed the same weekend that there are Leafs games and Jays games, and that somebody else decided to close the subway down for track repairs.”
Certainly that’s a sentiment many share, but let’s turn the question around: there are major events at the ACC or the Dome on many weekends of the year. That’s their purpose — to host events as often as possible. Do we simply stop repairing the city’s major infrastructure or restrict this to the few weekends in the year when nothing is happening? Would these venues agree to stay dark just because the TTC needs to test a new signal system? What would Tory say about a construction project that took forever to complete because almost no time was free to actually do work without a conflicting event?
There are many events that we tolerate as part of city life, indeed that we use to promote what a wonderful place Toronto is including parades, road races, film and music festivals/awards, not to mention the Pan Am Games. Should we limit the number and timing of such events? Should we recognize the effects stretching beyond the immediate area of an event with transit service and traffic fouled kilometres away?
This comes back to the need for a policy, a philosophy about the tradeoffs between congestion and other activities the city wishes to support. The idea that public works are an annoyance that must step aside is too simplistic a view of the complex needs of the city.
More Traffic Cameras / Traffic Signal Retiming
Traffic cameras can help to spot events in real time, and to monitor ongoing road behaviour and anticipate problems as they develop. Ideally, a response should be provided quickly both with on-the-spot traffic management and adjustments to signal timings to reflect altered conditions on neighbouring streets. In some cases, there really is no capacity nearby to absorb the effects of disruptions, and the real challenge is to remove them as soon as possible.
Plans for 2015 originally called for 250 intersections to be retimed, and Tory wants this expanded to 350. The intent is to improve overall traffic flow. (See the update at the end of this article.)
There is, however, a fundamental issue with shuffling road capacity by adjusting green time for each type of move at intersections. Some capacity must actually exist in the system for reallocation. A related problem is the degree of co-ordination between intersections, not just the operation of each location as an independent entity. For example, traffic on King Street West is affected by Gardiner-bound trips. These have shifted in location and in time due to construction projects including work on the Gardiner itself and on feeder streets such as Dufferin that was closed for a time for bridge repairs.
Some locations are plagued by intersection blockers — motorists who enter a junction they cannot possibly leave before losing their green signal. That is true gridlock and it is a behavioural problem that all the signs and signals in the world will not cure. Just as parking/stopping bylaws are worthless without enforcement, busy intersections can be jammed for lack of hands on traffic management.
This begs the more general question of the deployment of police as traffic wardens, and whether a separate class of traffic officers is needed both for busy intersections and for direction at construction sites.
Finally, there are basic constraints that some goals — enough time for pedestrian crossings, priority for transit vehicles — can work against an “ideal” pattern for road traffic. Congestion typically is seen as a problem for drivers with spillover effects on transit vehicles, but optimizing the network of signals will not necessarily make it disappear.
Lane Closures for Private Development / Extended Hours for Public Works Projects
With the huge amount of construction downtown, many streets have lost capacity to curb lane staging and delivery areas. The effect can seem unending as construction hoardings simply shift from one site to another.
Reducing these shutdowns may help, but will not eliminate the problem as long as condo and office construction continues in the city. Tory would offer financial incentives for early completion of projects, but any builder will factor these in as a tradeoff — whether the “incentive” is worth the changes in project schedules. The City could face a conflict between higher fees for lane occupancies, and the offsetting effect of incentives. These really need to be one regime, not two programs working at cross-purposes.
That said, it is not just new building construction that can swallow road capacity. Utility work — water, hydro and others — can have severe effects. Tory wants public sector projects to work from 6 am to 11 pm to complete work as quickly as possible. The benefit will vary depending on the type of project as some work — notably major TTC intersection replacements — already runs around the clock.
The Unasked Question: Transit Priority?
Mayor Tory’s announcement was silent on explicit improvements for transit. The Ford era has been marked by antipathy for transit, especially for streetcars, at City Hall and there has been no pressure from the Mayor or Council to improve transit’s lot.
In some quarters, the assumption is that making traffic generally work better is the best way to help transit — the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats — but this is too simplistic. Yes, in general, the more traffic moves, the better that transit service operating in that traffic will be. But there are cases where the needs of transit and other road users conflict, and these must be addressed with transit-specific designs.
The most common form of transit priority signalling in Toronto is the use of altered green times on transit streets. If a streetcar (or in some cases, a bus) is present, green time for its street can be extended to give more time for the vehicle to pull away from a stop. At some locations, a cross-street green may be shortened to reduce delays to transit on the main street. This works, up to a point, but there are many problems.
First, and most importantly, the system has to actually work. Operators routinely complain about (and sharp-eyed riders notice) locations where traffic signals that used to assist transit no longer do so. Sometimes they are fixed, sometimes not. This should be a priority.
A related problem, as discussed earlier, is that giving transit priority may take away capacity for other road users, notably on cross streets. What is optimal for transit may not provide the same benefit, or may even prove annoying for motorists. At some locations, pedestrian crossings block turning autos which, in turn, block transit vehicles. This type of competing demand needs to be worked out on an intersection-by-intersection basis looking at local conditions.
Central Toronto has many locations where there are more traffic signals than transit stops, and those “in between” signals can be a problem. Typically the blocks between signals are short, and yet the priority scheme is always “local” to the block containing a signal. The result is that the time needed to cycle a signal in transit’s favour is much more than the time between a vehicle’s detection and its arrival at the signal. This shows up in particular on Queens Quay.
What is needed is a more sophisticated view of a network of signals, and activation of transit priority based on approach of a transit vehicles from a greater distance so that a “green wave” to the next stop is guaranteed.
This brings up the problem of near side stops. When streetcar is loading passengers, it not only blocks all traffic travelling in the same direction (except where there are loading islands), it also falls out of the timing sequence that is optimized for road traffic. In a worst case situation, a streetcar may “hold” a green cycle while it is loading only to lose it just at the moment it is ready to leave. The situation is even more complex when transit priority is implemented in all directions as it is Broadview and Gerrard (the intersection of the 506 Carlton car with the 504/505 King/Dundas services). At present, there is no way for an operator to “release” a green phase he does not require, nor can she request one on an “I’m almost ready to depart now” basis.
Spadina Avenue brings its own problems because the intersections are so wide and require extra time for pedestrian crossings. This might even be extended if special phasing is added to give a protected crossing to transit islands for disabled riders, a proposal now making its way through the review process.
Almost all of Spadina’s north-south signals have provisions for transit phases, but these are activated only for turns off of Spadina (not for turns onto Spadina), and then only if the switch is activated electrically, not manually (the switching electronics “tell” the signals a car need to make a turn). Many of the TTC’s nominally electrified switches are out of service due to unreliable technology (a project to install a new system has been on the books, but dormant, for years).
A further problem lies at the many intersections where streetcars turn, but not on a scheduled basis, typically for short turns and diversions. For example, in September 2014, the 504 King service diverted around a street closure for the film festival at John Street, but streetcars had to fight their way around left turns eastbound at King & Spadina, and westbound at Queen & Spadina. This delay contributed to congestion not to mention interfering with other transit service. Priority signals for turns are needed in many locations simply to clear transit vehicles around corners as quickly as possible. The technology exists and is in use elsewhere in the city, but more is required.
The very different needs of transit vehicles from general traffic should be well-understood, and this will require micro-level, route by route, block-by-block planning.
The absence of any mention of transit in Mayor Tory’s announcement was disappointing especially for someone who ran on such a strong “transit” platform. It’s not all about big announcements, lines on a map and construction projects — real support for transit will show up in the day-to-day details including better priority for transit on all roads.
While chatting with the TTC CEO Andy Byford at the TTC Riders meeting on December 4, I asked whether he was disappointed that Mayor Tory has not mentioned transit in his announcement. Byford takes the “glass half full” view that this was an omission because the focus of the event was on “congestion”, and that the Mayor’s strong interest in transit will show up in transit priority improvements in the future.
Definitely this is an area to watch whether Mayor Tory is willing to make tradeoffs between moving traffic faster and making transit better.
Updated December 8, 2014:
Here, courtesy of Stephen Buckley, General Manager of Transportation Services at the City of Toronto, is the list of 2014 and 2015 intersection retiming projects:
219 signals by the end of 2014 on:
– Sheppard Ave (Weston Rd to Port Union Rd)
– Yonge St (Yonge Blvd to Lake Shore Blvd)
– Markham Rd (Steeles Ave to Kingston Rd)
– Islington Ave (Steeles Ave to Lake Shore Blvd)
– O’Connor Dr /Broadview Ave (Sunrise Ave to Danforth Ave)
– Leslie St (Steeles Ave to Eglinton Ave)
Below is a the preliminary list of traffic signals that will be reviewed in 2015. We think the list is pretty solid. However, if there is some unforeseen issue (emergency construction, etc.) the list may change or a corridor may be postponed.
– Dundas St: 49 signals between Keele St and Kingston Rd
– Lake Shore Blvd/Woodbine Ave: 13 signals between Coxwell Ave and O’Connor Dr
– Danforth Ave: 37 signals between Broadview Ave and Birchmount Park Collegiate
– Kipling Ave: 41 signals between Steeles Ave and Lake Shore Blvd
– Steeles Ave: 37 signals between 395 m West of Yonge St and Albion Rd
– McCowan Rd: 28 signals between Steeles Ave and Lawrence Ave
– Bathurst St: 65 signals between Steeles Ave and Fort York Blvd
– Warden Ave: 41 signals between Steeles Ave and Kingston Rd
– Steeles Ave E: 19 signals between Old Kennedy Rd/Silver Star Blvd and Pickering Town Line
– Wellington St: 8 signals from Blue Jays Way to Church
– Front St/Eastern Ave: 14 signals from Blue Jays Way to Trinity St