03/26/2015 08:38 EDT | Updated 05/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Toronto's Pan Am Transit Plans Divide the City

Man holding map standing on city street, Financial District, Toronto, Ontario
Vast Photography via Getty Images
Man holding map standing on city street, Financial District, Toronto, Ontario

Imagine spending months planning a great party. But as the date approaches, you are told not to attend it.

Canada will host the Pan Am Games in July. Fearing traffic chaos during the games, the organizers are recommending Torontonians to either stay at home or away from the City!

The transport plans for the Pan Am Games revealed that traffic delays under the worst case scenario may add 20 more minutes to the commute. That's a 62 per cent increase in the average travel time of 32.8 minutes in the GTA. The best case scenario suggests commute times may increase by up to seven minutes.

But there is a catch. The best case scenario relies on wishful thinking. The planners hope that one in five cars will simply disappear during the Games. A better approach will be to add capacity to the road and transit networks to counter the effects of laneway restrictions during the Games.

Authorities will turn some regular lanes into High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to provide priority access to those involved with the Games. Regular commuters traveling in groups of three or more will also use the HOV lanes. This restriction will effectively reduce road capacity on freeways in Toronto from June 29 to July 27. Instead of adding road and transit capacity, the transport plan for the Games reduces the throughput capacity, which may result in even worse congestion than the one forecasted for the worst case scenario.

Vancouver and London did it, so can we

Planners and others claim that London during the 2012 Summer Olympics and Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics were able to achieve a significant reduction in travel demand to avoid traffic chaos. This is not entirely true. It also masks the massive transport infrastructure investments that increased the throughput capacity for the Games.

The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were a victim of poor transport planning. Several athletes, journalists, and officials were stuck in traffic and arrived late at the venues. Since then the organizers have relied on dedicated lanes on freeways to move athletes and officials during the Games. Dedicated HOV lanes are also made available to commuters traveling in groups to exploit the unused capacity of the lanes.

A network of 30 miles of dedicated Olympics Games Lanes in London was put in place as part of the larger 109-mile Olympic Route Network. However, the very first day the lane restrictions were enforced, London faced huge rush-hour traffic jams.

What has not been mentioned about the Olympics in London is the significant amounts spent to expand the transport system ahead of the Games. Over seven billion pounds were spent to build new transport infrastructure in London. It was not merely reducing the roadway capacity, but also adding transport capacity that helped London avoid a complete gridlock.

Even with billions spent on new transport infrastructure for the Olympics, the transport authority for London (TfL) reported a mere five percent decline in the normal travel unrelated to the Games. The 20 per cent overall decline in travel demand, as is mentioned in several media reports in Canada, is not supported by the London's planning authorities.

TfL also reported that the forced changes in travel behaviour caused a significant decline in customers visiting London's West End retailers. In some instances, travel advisories reduced demand in corridors where sufficient capacity existed. Similarly, the planners made changes to 1,300 traffic signals without consulting the Boroughs "resulting in significant delays and congestion in some parts of outer London."

In Vancouver, several measures were taken to reduce the travel demand during the Winter Olympics. The post-secondary institutions in Vancouver extended the reading week break to reduce the number of trips to and from colleges and universities. The newly minted Olympic Line streetcar offered free transit service during the Games.

What should Toronto do?

Toronto must learn from the experiences in Vancouver and London. Instead of merely advising the public to stay away, the planners should consider adding capacity by offering incentives to regular commuters to take alternative roads and modes of travel.

Highway 407 is a toll facility with significant capacity. The Ontario government should consider eliminating the toll during the PaN AM Games to relieve pressure on Highway 401 and other major East-West arterials. The municipal governments should suspend all non-emergency road works and repairs during the Games.

The GO Transit network has sufficient capacity in the non-peak direction of travel during peak periods, and in both directions during off-peak periods. The government should offer free GO service in off-peak periods and in the non-peak direction during the peak period. This will encourage the motorists to switch to GO Transit during the Games. Some may continue to travel by public transit even after the Games. Similarly, the TTC should consider offering free rides in off-peak periods, when there is capacity in the transit system.

The Pan Am Games should bring the City together in a mass celebration of the human spirit. The current plans require people to stay away or at home, which is against the very spirit of the Games. Let's plan better to have fun at the Games.