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Mitzie Hunter, CEO, Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance

Mitzie Hunter, CEO, Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance

By Mitzie Hunter

Like many city-dwellers worldwide, residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) have reached an impasse. Our congestion problems are getting worse and worse, and we now have some of the longest commuting times in North America. Congestion is not only taking a toll on our economy and our environment, but also on our health and our quality of life.

IBM’s Social Sentiment Index research pulled tens of thousands of tweets about traffic from five major cities across Canada. The exercise homed in on what our residents feel is most important—not surprisingly, Toronto’s commuters were the most active to vent their opinions. Toronto had 10,000 tweets about traffic over an 11-month period, 40 percent of which were explicitly negative. By contrast, only 20 percent of tweets in Halifax were negative.

In the GTHA, through CivicAction’s Your32 campaign, we’ve been reaching out to all commuters—drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users—to learn what a better transportation system would mean to them. We’ve been driving people to our website, your32.com, and to twitter, and asking a simple question: “What would you do with 32?” Thirty-two represents the number of minutes, on average, commuters in the region will save if the approved transportation plan, The Big Move, is funded and built over the next 25 years. The Big Move is the region’s plan for an improved, fully connected transportation system across the GTHA.

Through their responses, people have been painting a picture of the human cost of congestion—the toll congestion is taking on our lives by sucking away the time we could otherwise be spending on the things that matter. Things like eating healthy meals, going to the gym, or spending time with our families.

But we’re also finding that people are inspired by the idea of what a better system could bring: time to finish that novel they’ve been working on for years, to learn a new language, to take on a new hobby, or to explore more of what our amazing region has to offer.

When it comes to solving our congestion problems, smarter transportation is part of the solution. Employers can play their part by offering staff incentives for carpooling and taking transit, or by being open to flexible hours and telecommuting.  Smart commute networks can also help employers promote smarter commuting choices. New technologies and demand management mechanisms, from computer modeling, to crowd-sourcing, to intelligent traffic lights must also play a role – and we’re sure to see new and exciting innovations in the decades to come to maximize our road capacity and our transit system.

Many cities are exploring these opportunities now. But while these technologies can play a role in solving our congestion woes, what we need more than anything is better physical infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure in Canadian cities—and especially in the GTHA—has been chronically underfunded for decades. We’ve far exceeded the capacity of our current network, and with the estimated nearly three million people—a population the size of greater Montreal—moving into the GTHA over the next 25 years, things will only get worse. Unless we start building now  the upgraded, expanded, multimodal system that we need to make up for lost time and to plan for the future.

Fixing any city’s congestion crisis won’t happen overnight; it will take time, money and commitment to make up for decades of neglect and delay. But the need to act has never been so clear, and the cost of inaction has never been so high.

As we act, we should be guided by an overriding vision of smarter networks that better connect us to the places we want to go, and that provide us with more choice in how we get there. New technologies and attitudinal changes are part of the answer, but unless the public and decision-makers accept that we all have to pay for a better system, to build the new infrastructure that we need, the human cost of congestion will affect us for generations to come. While we continue to innovate and design a better future, it’s time to get moving on building The Big Move.

Join the conversation in the GTHA: visit your32.com, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

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