One Track Minds Can’t See the Food for the Traffic Jams

By Wayne Roberts

There’s only one issue that gets all right-thinking North Americans yelling out of the far left side of their mouth. Roads. It’s almost universally believed that roads should be built by the state, from each according to the government’s ability, and to each according to their need.

Some political junkies think medicare or social security for seniors or education are “third rails” of politics, akin to the third rail on subway tracks, because any politician who touches it will be electrocuted. But the real third rail of North American politics is free roads.

Every once in a while, an environmentalist without street smarts forgets this – brains clouded from inhaling too much car exhaust while biking, perhaps – and gets fried PDQ.

That’s what happened to Gord Miller, Ontario’s independent environment watchdog, when his annual report lambasted people for driving as if there was no tomorrow, and wondered if road tolls could reduce pollution and global warming emissions from car exhaust while cutting the time lost in Toronto’s notorious traffic jams .

The politicians all howled at the very idea that drivers should pay to use roads. The pay-your-own-way/ save taxpayers’ money rhetoric goes out the car window, and no-one dares mention that gas taxes and license fees paid by drivers don’t begin to cover the full costs of road use — which include policing, ambulances, healthcare arising from road accidents, clean-up of environmental spills, road repair (a hundred million dollars a year from Toronto taxes, to take one example), not to mention collateral damage linked to loss of farm and wild lands and the roadkill toll on wild animals.

Opponents of user fees for roads also don’t like to count in the costs of traffic congestion — estimated to cost Toronto’s economy from three to six billion a year in lost productivity as truckers, salespeople and others get paid to be stuck in traffic.

Drivers may not like to pay for roads, but there is no such thing as a free road. Either drivers pay for the road, or those too young, too old, too broke or too disabled to drive pay for roads in their taxes.

But the interesting problem aside from how drivers offload costs of their habit is the traffic jam in the minds of planners. Most remain wed to linear thinking about the necessity of mobility, as distinct from access, which is really what people want. As soon as mobility becomes the need and issue of the day, roads follow. As soon as access becomes the issue, others ways of getting where people need to get start leaping out of the woodwork.

This is the way energy guru Amory Lovins liked to start open-ended discussions about energy. People don’t want electricity, he used to famously say. Electricity is what economists call an “intermediate good.” What people want, Lovins would say, is a real good — cold beer, warm rooms and hot showers. There are lots of ways of getting there without electricity, he would then show, including a switch to ale, which is best served at room temperature.

Likewise, the beginning of wisdom in overcoming one-track mindedness in traffic planning comes from Martin Collier of Toronto-based Transport Futures. Don’t use the word toll, he warned me. Not only is it associated with dastardly events, like death toll of drug abuse, it’s way too specific. Collier sees four ways of thinking about “road pricing,” his preferred term. He’d like to see roads priced so users pay their fair share, and so all people, including drivers, are encouraged to find better ways to get around.

There are four main ways to think about pricing roads, Collier argues. At the simplest level, drivers can pay for the road facility, as with special tolls to drive on special throughways. Or, drivers could pay for the zone the road is in, as in London, England, where drivers pay to drive in the congested downtown area, or as in a time zone on a freeway, such as rush hour.

Third, drivers can be charged for the road network – not just the pay highway, but the public roads leading up to it. Fourth, drivers can pay their share of the “mobility system.”

A car-based mobility system, for example, can’t function without parking lots. Most cities offer multiple parking spots for every car, a major reason why a third of most city space is taken over by pavement, colored just right to attract and absorb lots of summer heat, which makes summer walking scorching hot.

Some planners say it’s reasonable that drivers pay for this monopoly on land use, perhaps with a dollar surcharge on parking fees that would help finance non-car/non-parking lot mobility systems.

The mobility system I’m most interested in encouraging is a walking-based mobility system that reduces unnecessary reliance on long trips by making full use of food planning.

The interesting transit challenge is to get people out of their car and onto their sidewalk, not onto public transit, which can rarely compete with cars for time.

Getting people to work closer to home should be a snap in this hyper-wired era, when most workplaces could have satellite offices located close to both workers and customers, making it easier for everyone to get to.

The more that happens, the more people walk, lose weight, meet neighbors, pick up things on their way home, save time on commuting, and so on. A lot of good things start to happen when you do a few things right.

The easiest way to imbed road-avoidance in a city is through adaptations to the food system.

About a fifth of car trips in most cities are for buying food. Most of these car trips could be eliminated if people walked to good food retail outlets on nearby main streets. Road pricing could help support lively food scenes on lively main streets during the start-up phase. I’d rather public money go to making these trips walkable than subsidizing public transit to a faraway grocery.

And if we wanted to deal with the vehicles dominant in many highway traffic jams, we could target long- haul food trucks – the ones that bring in about 90 per cent of most cities’ food supplies from some 2000 miles away.

Few incoming food trucks are driven by local citizens and voters, or come from companies that pay local or regional taxes for road construction, upkeep or overhead. These ultimate free-riders could be charged a hefty fee for rush-hour road use. These fees can be used to level the playing field for nearby regional farmers, who don’t use 2000 miles of free road to get to town.

Ultimately, we could drive and ramp up change — to borrow from car-dependent language — to the point where urban farms could be built over parking lots of box store plazas. Researcher Brian Cook and I once google-mapped parking lots of box store malls in Toronto’s east end, and were flabbergasted by how many were of a size that could be converted into 40 acre farms. Instead of driving to buy a week’s supply of stale food, people in the area could be walking to pick up that day’s supply of farmed food.

If Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford were thinking of new ways to avoid car wars, he might even use revenues from parking fees to fund affordable housing for working families in the downtown core so less people would have to commute downtown to work. Affordable housing spread throughout the city, together with local food, are the best trip-avoiders in the biz.

Scream though many will, there is no long-term evasion of new approaches to road pricing. The issue is whether that money will be invested in trip avoidance or trip creation.

(This article is adapted from NOW Magazine, June 8-15, 2011.)


  1. [...] is as responsible as anything else for driving people crazy.In terms of today’s problems, about a fifth of both auto and truck trips in and across cities are food-related. It’s not uncommon for people [...]

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