Since this is, once again, Tom-Tom week in the media, we’ve got to respond again.

From their release:

The traditional responses to congestion, such as building new roads or widening existing ones are no longer proving to be effective. Real time traffic information can help drivers find the quickest shortcut on their journey, and assist governments to make smarter decisions to improve traffic flow for their cities,” said Harold Goddijn, CEO of TomTom.

The Traffic Index is the only global measurement of traffic congestion comparing travel times during non-congested hours with travel times in peak hours experienced by passenger vehicles. The Index takes into account both local roads and highways. The top seven most congested cities in Canada ranked by overall Congestion level in 2013 were:

  1. Vancouver
  2. Toronto
  3. Ottawa
  4. Montreal
  5. Calgary
  6. Quebec
  7. Edmonton

when the Amsterdam-based GPS makers released their biannual survey on the most congested cities.

Seriously?  TransLink, the Feds and the Province have spent – what? – $5 to $10 billion on new and widened roads and bridges in Metro, meant to address congestion – and it got worse?

One would have to conclude, as Tom Tom suggests, that road expansion is ‘no longer effective’ – if that wasn’t so transparently in their self-interest. (Better buy a Tom Tom box for real-time traffic information!)

Here’s the problem with Tom Tom: it measures the difference between the posted speed limit and actual speed, and concludes that that constitutes congestion. But that’s not ‘stuck in congestion,’ it just means slower.

The dangerous assumption is that cars should be able to drive everywhere all the time at the maximum speed allowed.  A system like that, in addition to being outrageously expensive and likely impossible, destroys the idea of the city itself: as a place of exchange and interaction for many different modes of travel, of spaces that require slower movement to be livable and safe. Particularly some of those secondary routes.

Then there’s the question of the sample. If it only includes Tom Tom users, it’s likely atypical drivers who need assistance.  What is the difference between the driving patterns of Tom Tom users and the others?  Without knowing that, it’s hard to know how their analysis is reflective of the norm.

Mainly, though, this report should be considered promotional advertising, and treated with caution.

For those who find the Tom Tom drums quicken their pulses, however, they’d do better by picking up Andrew Coyne’s column today: Toll roads the only solution to traffic congestion.  It allows them to indulge in a bit of transit-bashing, some free-market fundamentalism while still having to face the music.  (It may have a good beat but they probably won’t want to dance to it.)

… the idea that simply adding another subway or light rapid transit line is going to cure congestion, or even make much of a dent in it, is pure fantasy.



Have a look at that TomTom table again, this time for Europe. Among the worst congested cities on the list you will find some of those with the most admired transit systems. … Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin all have worse congestion problems than Toronto. Yet they are blessed with transit networks of a scope and quality that Canadian cities can only dream of. …

If cities are serious about congestion, there’s only one real solution: replace the time-price of driving with an economic price, one that allocates scarce road space to those who put the highest value on the roads rather than those who put the lowest value on their time.

Besides being much quicker to implement, road tolls have the added advantage of instantly making transit more competitive: not by subsidizing transit, but by taking the subsidy out of private car use. But so long as the roads remain unpriced, congestion will remain a serious and growing problem, and all the transit in the world isn’t going to fix it.

Alas, the very thing that make tolls work — their transparency — make them anathema to politicians. Why ask drivers to pay the real costs of using the roads, when you can promise grand far-off transit schemes you won’t be around to use and that someone else will pay for?

Or why not just say to hell with it all and tell ’em to buy a Tom Tom box.


UPDATE: How Tolls Could Help Prevent a U.S. Transportation Crisis


  1. They are smart smart. Every few months they release their “report” and get probably hundreds of millions of dollars of free publicity. No wonder the media is in trouble. Why bother buying advertising when the media will fall for what is obviously just a clever PR campaign.

  2. I am under the impression that the congestion metric they use is not a speed differential, but a time-to-destination differential indexed to off-peak traffic. It is a useful metric to show how wasteful (in so many senses) commuting is – in Vancouver especially. I absolutely disagree with the opprobrium you have delivered here. The conclusions by Goddijin are the same as yours are they not; traffic is a problem and building car-based infrastructure will not solve traffic woes. You have left me wondering what you deem to be “dumb-dumb” in all of this.

  3. I agree with Richard on this, but I have a few other observations.

    Clearly, the recent massive spending on bridges and roads is not helping, so something else has to be done. Tom-Tom’s report is wonderful ammunition for those who think that urban transportation cannot continue to focus attention and spending on the motor vehicle to the exclusion of all other modes.

    Worse, the Tom-Tom report, however they arrive at their conclusions, is myopic and does not serve a wider purpose. It only measures the problem for motor vehicles, mostly private automobiles. Yet there are large numbers of people in Vancouver who travel by different modes. What, I wonder, is the “congestion” situation for them? Here, I’m thinking of the infamous pass-up problem on the B-Line (North America’s busiest bus route), and the waiting time built into transit services where frequency is low. Aren’t all of these delays and wasted time a great analogy to a motorist sitting in “congestion”?

  4. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Coyne of free-market fundamentalism. I think there need to be a good mixture of carrots and sticks to deal with congestion. I see no reason why people who live far away from where they want to be shouldn’t have to pay the full, unsubsidized cost of getting there, or else move permanently closer. Why should the government tax people who live close to the city and use the money to subsidize travel for people who live far away?

    I think tolling roads should be a greater priority than building transit. It’s kind of like the priority of cheaply improving efficiency by weatherstripping homes before building a new powerplant (and that objective can also be achieved by simply pricing power a little higher, and increasing the costs of inefficiency for power consumers).

    1. Tolling roads is difficult and expensive to implement on the wide scale that’s necessary. The low hanging fruit (bridges, main highways, cordons around city centres) makes it more expensive to access the core and thus provides an incentive to locate more jobs in the suburbs or exurbs far from tolls.
      In the US fewer than 1/4 of jobs are located in city cores. Suburbs now host 43% of all jobs and suburb to suburb commuting is the dominant pattern. Human powered transportation and public transit that excel in dense urban areas and suburb to core commuting cannot be efficient when spread thin across hundreds of square miles with a million different origin-destination pairs.

      I don’t think our current crop of politicians is ever going to take transit delays seriously nor will they ever accept that congestion is a sign of a successful city. Instead they want to overbuild to the point where rush hour traffic can flow at 100km/h.

      1. Tolling using zones would likely be very expensive in most North American cities, as you mention, because of the large number of streets that would cross a zone boundary.

        Tolling using zones could be relatively inexpensive in Metro Vancouver because only eight crossings, two of which are already tolled, would need to be equipped to establish a basic system. Many of these crossings are also the points along our road network where tolls would be most useful for reducing congestion.

  5. Comments on the article linked as “Update” tend to run either ideologically against all forms of tax or in favour of bigger gas taxes over road tolls because they’re easily collected and apply to all roads not just a select few toll roads. Proponents say that the majority of gas tax should go to the biggest highways because they have the most users paying in.

    I agree that gas taxes are easily collected and that they apply fairly from an emissions standpoint (burn more, pay more).

    I also agree that a big enough gas tax could eliminate the need for tolls, but the increase would have to be enormous to cover the true costs of driving and a uniform tax would have to apply across all jurisdictions so it would be impossible to cross a border and avoid paying your share.

    While it’s true that the heaviest used roads contribute the most gas tax, they still don’t cover costs even during peak hours. Here in the muggle world our roads can’t shrink or completely disappear in response to lower demand magically removing all the associated construction, maintenance and secondary costs as they do so. We’re stuck with a 10 lane bridge even when a 2 lane one would do quite nicely much of the day.

    While we demand efficiency from nearly everything in our lives, we insist that roads be used in the least efficient manner possible. We insist on wrapping individual humans in 2 tonnes of metal, glass and plastic so they occupy the most possible space on the road. It’s been driven (pun intended) into our heads for decades that we should expect an “open road” that we can drive without delay at any time of day. As a result we see a highway used at 10% of its people and goods carrying capacity as hopelessly clogged with traffic.

  6. I think think your explanation of Tom Tom is quite right. It is not measuring the difference between the posted speed and actual speed, but the difference between the fast travel times, presumably at night with no congestion, and slow travel times during rush hour. The differential is assumed to be due to congestion. The actual posted speed is really only a conversation piece during both those periods. Of course it is absurd the way this is presented and the way that media folk have been duped into providing free advertizing. Obviously we expect this from the editorial board of the Province, but don’t any of the other newspaper writers read blogs?

    The time differential data might be perfectly true, but the data set is suspect. And are TomTom users actually average drivers? I doubt it. And this data certainly isn’t a measurement of commuter pain. Two hours during the day and two hours at night is better than 20 minutes during the day and 10 minutes at night. That is absurd. Using this methodology, the easiest way to improve your score is to shut down roads at night to decrease travel times. And the data could very well be presented in the reverse: Vancouver is the best city to drive around in off peak.

    But how can we reverse the tide. I suggest that we start a study measuring media uptake of the TomTom reports in various cities to come up with an index of media gullibility. Then we can present quarterly reports on which city’s media is the most bone-headed and maybe we’ll get some press.

  7. I do think that it is true that transit does not relieve auto congestion, it relieves people of auto congestion. Unfortunately many transit projects are sold as congestion relievers, and there really is only two solutions to road congestion: shooting people who drive and tolling.

    1. I think one could argue that transit can reduce congestion. Hypothetically, with enough money and will, one could build enough attractive transit to seduce vast numbers of motorists out of their cars. Fewer cars might result, and this would reduce congestion.

      Realistically, the question at the end of that thought process is whether or not a real world transit buildout can attract enough motorists to offset growth in motor vehicle usage due to population growth.

      The energetic Mr. Litman at VTPI.ORG has written in detail about this:

      At the end of the day, however, as long as we continue to buy into propaganda that focuses the discussion of transportation onto one measure — car travel — we’re locked into a losing situation. We might be better off trying to focus on issues around moving people throughout the region, regardless of which mode they may choose for any particular trip.

      1. Building transit does little to reduce road congestion because it doesn’t take very many people to make a road congested. A highway with two lanes in each direction is only going to move 4000 cars per direction per hour. Those 4000 spots are currently auctioned off to whoever values their time the least. If all those 4000 car commuters started taking transit, another 4000 people would line up to take their place.

        People complain about the low capacity of the Canada Line, but its ultimate capacity is far greater than the supposedly massive new Port Mann Bridge. It’s easy to overestimate road capacity because it’s expensive and physically large.

        1. A lane can take between 1400 to 2000 cars per hour. So the Port Mann Bridge could take at least 7,000 cars per hour per direction, which is more than the Canada Line currently can carry. In Germany they manage about 2,200 cars per hour per lane because their drivers don’t suck.

          Add in buses and HOV cars and the bridge should be able to carry well over 10,000 people per hour per direction. It’s likely that 100,000 seats cross the bridge in an hour, we just suck at utilizing them.

  8. Indeed with more and more fuel efficient cars and soon electric cars, paying for roads from gasoline taxes is not the right way. Why should a $100,000 Tesla not pay anything for road use, for example ?

    Car use is far too cheap and inexpensive in Vancouver for people to switch to other modes of transportation. Congestion charges and road tolling by time of day and volume is indeed the only logical way to go.

    Access to downtown over Lions Gate bridge ( or Granville, Cambie, Burrard, Hastings or ViaDuct) only $5, but from 6-9 am $25. That will ease the morning commute in no time. Price will go up until congestion eases. As easy to speak as difficult to implement.

    1. Well, you could look at it paying everything up front in sales taxes. The batteries on a 85kwh Tesla are about $40,000. So they paid $4,800 in sales taxes on just the batteries.

      There’s also a levy on your hydrobill for funding translink. As is, EVs are such a tiny amount of the market that it doesn’t matter though. I think encouraging adoption of EVs should be given a higher priority than replacing gas tax revenue until they hit a market share of maybe 15% or so.

    1. Quite recently actually. And the traffic is very bad, too despite much better transit AND despite much higher gasoline prices. Let’s not look at other cities bad policies to emulate them here.

      The ONLY way to reduce gridlock is to price road use, as gasoline charges alone are too low and with fuel efficient cars, hybrids and e-cars other pricing mechanisms have to be implemented.

      Higher price = lower use. Pretty simple concept.

      For example: usually I drive to the airport to pick folks up or perhaps for a 1-2 day business trip. There is a subway. If they charged me $20 to enter the airport I might pay it for picking up very rare guests. For regular guests I would likely ask them to take the subway or would likely take a cab or the bus/subway. For $30 or more I’d not use the car for any reason to drive to airport.

      Gridlock is a result of cheap road use. It is as simple as that.

  9. Interesting ideas. What do you think the fee for air travel should be? Surely you didn’t think traveling by plane when you could be skyping should be penalty free, right?

    1. I should also add this is happening because Vancouver has cleverly priced out a large proportion of it’s residents who must live further and further away from where they work.

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