Traffic Congestion in Western Canada

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Alberta is one of the fastest growing provinces in the country, both in terms of economic activity and population size. While this gives rise to a lively and vibrant environment in which to work and live, it does have a downside in the form of traffic congestion. In fact, complaints regarding congestion have become commonplace, not only in Alberta’s cities, but also in Saskatchewan in Manitoba and in British Columbia.

Residents and politicians in Calgary and Edmonton have proposed various ideas for dealing with the high traffic volumes – everything from toll roads to traffic congestion charges (such as those in London.) Another popular idea is to build a high-speed rail link between Edmonton and Calgary, the cost of which is estimated at over three billion dollars.

Since GPS maker TomTom started releasing its congestion index, however, the argument that such grand plans are appropriate no longer convinces everyone. The index ranks North American cities according to their traffic congestion, calculated as percentage points.

During morning and evening rush hour, Calgary’s roads are 17% and 22% congested, which means that the journey home takes 17% longer in the mornings and 22% longer in the evenings than it would have taken on an empty road. Its highways are only 11% congested, and it is overall ranked 16th on the North American congestion index. Edmonton ranks 23rd, with its streets 18% congested and its highways, on 1%, almost free-flowing. Some now argue that, while an Edmonton-Calgary high-speed rail link will reduce green gas emissions, it is a prohibitively expensive plan to combat such a low traffic volume.

The same holds for cities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which do not even register on the TomTom index. While traffic problems feature in all local elections, the most common solution has been to alter existing roads and build bridges. In Saskatoon Saskatchewan, for example, a six-lane bridge has been built over the South Saskatchewan river, which eases congestion through large parts of the city. In Winnipeg Manitoba, Plessis Road, which is one of their busiest, has been targeted for various improvements. A rail bridge has been built to prevent trains from holding up traffic, the road has been widened and new bicycle and new pedestrian lanes have been constructed to help vehicle traffic to flow unimpeded.

One city in Western Canada whose residents have a highly legitimate complaint is Vancouver in British Columbia. TomTom ranks this city as the second most congested in North America, with its roads 51% and 65% congested during morning and evening peak hours respectively. In other words, it takes residents 51% or 65% longer to get home than it would have taken on empty roads. The problem is attributed to the fact that Vancouver does not have much of a highway network, with the result that the local network with its arterials are desperately overloaded.

The complaints regarding traffic congestion in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are real, however, and residents are clearly objecting to the increase in traffic congestion relative to that in which they are used to driving. Since the big cities in all these provinces are growing, the problem is one that authorities cannot ignore.