C/O Mac Titov, Unsplash

Expanding highways only offer marginal benefits towards solving congestion 

By: Mitchell Tam, Contributor 

Anyone who has had to drive on the 403, 401 or QEW during rush hour can attest to just how congested our roads can be. Indeed, growing up in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, I think we can all remember seeing pictures of near standstill traffic during the morning news.  

The Ford government’s idea of building Highway 413 is a good one in theory. By increasing capacity, we can ease congestion and encourage economic development in areas beyond the city. However, upon closer inspection, this is a short-sighted solution to a much larger problem regarding Ontario’s roads. 

By building more highways, we are investing massive amounts of economic resources on a false assumption. That assumption is that highways will improve economic productivity by decreasing commuting time and encouraging businesses to be located close to the highway to improve convenience of their commuting employees.  

Already, we have at least one problem: the pandemic has shown remote working to be an effective form of employment that will likely continue to grow even after the pandemic ends.  

The other problem with this assumption is the belief that roads create economic growth. However, that isn’t the case. According to many urban planners at the University of Bath, there are no clear indications that highways lead to notable economic impacts. Rather, the researchers found that while development could be encouraged by highway extensions, there was no noteworthy economic benefit to the government.   

Additionally, even if the highway immediately reduces congestion on Southern Ontario’s roads, it is at best an extremely short-sighted solution. This is because Canada’s population is continuing to grow considerably.  

Canada’s population is expected to grow anywhere from 44.4 million to 70.2 million by 2068. In fact, it’s expected that the population in the GTHA is projected to grow by an approximate three million by 2046.  

It’s likely that population growth will mean more cars on this province’s roads and even more congestion. Even if the 413 was built, the growth in population and car ownership will eliminate any benefit and force the government to expand the highways again, which would still leave the problem of congestion unsolved. 

So, if highways do not work, how can we solve congestion on the province’s roads and highways? The answer to this is simple: public, high quality mass transit.  

Simply put, mass transit systems such as trains and buses are cheap, effective and scalable methods of moving millions of people around the GTHA and getting them out of their cars. This leaves space on the highway for vehicles that need to use them such as trucks. 

In fact, we have already done this before. It’s how GO transit was created. Yes, it’s true! GO transit was created in 1965 to remove commuter traffic from Ontario’s highways to ease congestion — and it worked. The rail service has surpassed its own ridership goals earlier than it had anticipated.  

Rather than spending on highways that will likely be obsolete by the time they are completed, we should instead focus on expanding and upgrading GO services in the GTHA and beyond.  

By investing in better rail and bus service to connect major population centers in the province, we will be setting ourselves up for success. The growing population of Ontario will have alternatives to driving, eliminating our congestion problem and leaving the highways clear for those who need them.  

This is relevant to McMaster community as a significant portion of its student body is comprised of commuters who rely on both GO transit and the highway system to come to campus. A stronger investment in transit as a solution to Ontario’s traffic problems would benefit students at McMaster by shortening commute times and increasing the quality of service for students coming to campus.  

As we go to the polls later this year for provincial elections, we must remember it will likely be the next provincial government that makes major infrastructure decisions that will impact us all for decades to come. 

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