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What’s going on with construction traffic in downtown Toronto? Here’s what we found

Downtown Toronto normally sees a lot of construction projects each summer, but this year there’s a big addition. So how is the city managing congestion? CBC Toronto went looking for answers about what’s being done and what other solutions might help keep the city moving. 

Interactive map shows 50 current road restrictions in downtown core.

Queen street closed at Bay Street.

“We’re being strangled by gridlock.”

That’s how one planning expert described congestion in Toronto right now. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.

The downtown core normally sees a lot of construction projects each summer, but this year there’s a big addition. Significant work is now underway on the Ontario Line, with the full closure of Queen Street to motorists and cyclists between Bay and Victoria streets until at least 2027.

So how is the city managing congestion? And how did it decide what other infrastructure work needs to be done at the same time? CBC Toronto went looking for answers about what’s being done and what other solutions might help keep the city moving.

To get a sense of what construction is underway downtown, and provide a resource to navigate the related traffic, CBC Toronto built a map of current road restrictions in the downtown core based on available city data.

The interactive map includes 50 road restrictions in the downtown area bordered by Bathurst Street in the west, College Street in the north, Parliament Street in the east and Lakeshore Boulevard in the south. Hover over the dot on top of each restriction to find out what lanes are affected and how it’s supposed to last.

Here’s all the construction impacting traffic downtown right now:

How bad is traffic with all of that construction?

A couple years ago, a model-based study from Metrolinx tried to figure out the worst-case scenario for traffic during morning (7-9 a.m.) and afternoon (4-6 p.m.) rush hour periods in downtown Toronto when factoring in future restrictions from both Ontario Line and city-led construction.

To determine a conservative, worst-case estimate, the study assumed all the planned city-led construction was happening at the same time. The results of the study were included in a November 2021 report to the city’s executive committee on temporary road closures and community impacts of the Ontario Line.

During the afternoon peak, the study projected it would take 46 minutes to drive east along Adelaide Street from Bathurst Street to Parliament Street. The pre-construction base estimate was 22 minutes, with an additional 24 minutes added because of city-led and Ontario Line construction.

Does construction traffic have to be this bad?

CBC’s Angelina King and Nicole Brockbank went for a drive to see how bad traffic is in Toronto’s core and looked into what’s being done to try and make it more bearable.

CBC Toronto decided to test out that projection by driving the same route during the afternoon rush. The first time, on Wednesday, May 31 at 4:40 p.m. the drive took 29 minutes.

But just over a week later on Thursday, June 8 at 5:11 p.m. the same three kilometre drive along Adelaide Street between Bathurst and Parliament streets took 52 minutes — six minutes longer than the study’s worst-case scenario and double what Google Maps estimated at the start of the drive.

Roger Browne, director of traffic management for the city, says his department’s own simulation models for the Queen Street closure predicted a “catastrophic impact in terms of congestion levels.”

“There’s so much work going on that 50 minute window, which was bad to begin with, theoretically would have been 75 minutes or even more,” he said. “It hasn’t gotten as bad as it could be, had it not been for the interventions of our team.”

The biggest impact on traffic CBC Toronto observed on the drive — aside from diversions from the Queen Street closure — was city-led construction restricting Adelaide Street to one lane directly parallel with the Queen Street closure.

Why is Adelaide under construction parallel to the Queen closure?

It wasn’t supposed to be.

The original plan was for the work on Adelaide to be complete by May 2023, in time for the start of the Queen Street closure, according to a Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) report from February 2022.

That way, the 501 Queen streetcar could be diverted east around the Queen closure via Adelaide instead of running a shuttle bus. But to make that possible, Adelaide needed new streetcar tracks. And while that work was supposed to start last summer, “the amount and complexity of utility conflicts and relocations” surpassed expectations and delayed that construction, according to a TTC report from earlier this year.

Construction at an intersection reducing traffic to one lane across the street out of the intersection.

This month the city is still completing infrastructure work and co-ordinating the relocation of utilities so the new streetcar track installation can begin. Practically, that means construction work on Adelaide between Bathurst and Parliament streets won’t be complete until next spring.

In general, the city tries to avoid work on parallel main roads at the same time, according to the director of engineering support services.

“As much as we try to focus on mitigating the impact of traffic, sometimes either because of the condition of the infrastructure or the urgent need to make these upgrades, we don’t have any choice,” said Avi Bachar. “And these things have to happen at the same time.”

How does the city decide what construction happens when?

There’s a two-pronged approach.

On the macro level, the city’s engineering and construction services division decides what major city-led infrastructure projects need to happen years in advance based on the state of repair.

Man sitting at a boardroom table.

Then on a micro level, a co-ordination team within the city’s traffic management department looks at how to balance that work with other construction that might not be planned so far in advance.

“Our team is dealing with the day-to-day,” said Browne. “Like utility work that randomly pops up, developers that all of a sudden we get a phone call and a developer saying, ‘the next couple of months I need to close this area of the road to do this work.'”

Browne says traffic management negotiates road restriction requests with companies and can approve closures of 30 days or less, but has to provide a report to council for longer proposals.

How important is this construction?

It’s crucial to address infrastructure, housing and transit issues — according to both city officials and external urban planning experts like Matti Siemiatycki.

“We’re definitely at a breaking point when it comes to affordable housing and much of our underground infrastructure, like our sewers and our pipes and our electricity,” said Siemiatycki, director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto.

“We need to be doing the construction better, more efficiently with less disruption, but we also have to recognize that construction is critical.”

Man in suit standing in front of screen.

Right now, Browne says we’re in “the eye of the storm” between maintaining aging infrastructure, encouraging development to address the housing crisis, and the major transit investment underway through the Ontario Line.

“You’re looking at a four-and-a-half to eight-year window until some of the major impactful work is going to come to an end and we’ll be able to kind of go back to normal circumstances,” he said.

How is the city trying to keep traffic moving?

Most of the work goes on in two adjacent rooms. The “War Room” is a boardroom used to co-ordinate construction activities affecting Toronto’s road network on a micro-level.

And the Traffic Operations Centre monitors traffic in Toronto 24/7 by watching huge screens which display more than 50 of the city’s 400 camera feeds simultaneously. If operation centre staff identify a congestion issue, they can remotely adjust one of the city’s nearly 2,500 traffic signals to address it.

Man sitting at desk looking at monitors with a bunch of traffic video feeds.

“For example, we look at a traffic light and say you know what, if we add two or three more seconds to that east-west movement, we could probably clear a lot more [vehicles],” said Browne.

“Sometimes there is nothing you could do with the traffic signal to make the situation better and likewise these folks have access to our traffic agent team … who could then be deployed to an intersection and physically be on site to help manage traffic.”

The city currently has 14 traffic agents, but there are plans to expand the program. One of the biggest issues they can help with, according to Browne, is preventing vehicles from blocking the intersection so that cars going the other direction can’t get through when they have the right of way.

What can commuters do to avoid congestion?

One option is ditching your car.

“We need to be encouraging people to use public transit and where it’s viable for them to bike or to walk,” said Siemiatycki. “The fewer people who are using their car, the more space there is for those who require it, either for their job or because of accessibility issues.”

But the urban planning professor says current moves to cut transit service and increase fares will have the opposite effect.

A man smiling in a park.

“Those who can afford to, and are able to, are going to drive and that’s going to just continue to exacerbate the challenges that we’re facing,” said Siemiatycki.

The director of traffic management for Toronto says there’s been a concerted effort to maintain sidewalks and bike lanes in construction work zones to make sure those are viable alternatives. And traffic signals around major closures, like on Queen Street, have been modified to detect buses. So automated signals can change lights to make sure buses get through faster to remain on schedule.

“Your commute is going to be slower,” said Browne. “If you have no other choice but to drive, the key thing is to try and plan your trips and to leverage the information that we’re providing through our web page and through our Twitter feed as well to help guide you.”

What else can be done to help with traffic downtown?

Embrace data analytics and emerging technology.

Even though big data and analytics have become a key part of many industries, including sports, Siemiatycki says much more can be done with it for infrastructure.

“We are in the stone ages when it comes to data and analytics and using that data to inform what choices we make,” he said.

“How long do these [construction] jobs take? Are certain jobs taking longer than others, even do certain companies perform better than others on these jobs? That’s the type of information that hopefully the city is using to both make decisions and then improve performance.”

On the traffic management side, most of the data available comes from what’s gathered at intersections. But one Toronto-based traffic engineering firm is looking to change that.

Man in suit standing in an office.

Trans-Plan has a patent-pending on software that uses drone cameras to capture all the traffic movement in an entire neighbourhood simultaneously and artificial intelligence to create a data set that is ready for modelling and analysis right away. The software gathers data on types of vehicles, how long each vehicle takes to pass through an area, and even how long each vehicle remains parked on a street.

“Without a complete understanding of neighbourhoods, we don’t believe the congestion problems can be fixed straight away,” said Shadi Hagag, CEO of Trans-Plan.

“This solution can study construction during the construction period to understand the operations and inform the city of what needs to be done.”

Birds-eye view of city streets with markers for each vehicle on the roadway.

Browne says currently the city is pretty limited in its ability to capture data in between traffic signals because camera poles can only be so high.

“There would definitely be a benefit to having sort of a higher-level perspective on corridors to manage things at the corridor level,” he told CBC Toronto.

Another potential solution, albeit a controversial one, is congestion zone pricing.

“Road tolls are the third rail of politics — you touch them and you get a shock,” said Siemiatycki.

The director of the Infrastructure Institute says tolls would have two benefits: raise revenue to pay for more transit and infrastructure we need to maintain, and encourage people to carpool, cycle or take transit.

Cities like London and Stockholm have had congestion zone pricing in place in their city centres for years. In 2013, a decade after London implemented its system, the city’s transportation body reported a 10 per cent reduction in traffic levels. Stockholm has also maintained a drop in traffic levels since it implemented its permanent system in 2007.

Bus entering congestion charging zone in London.

New York City is likely next. The busiest part of lower Manhattan could be subject to a congestion pricing toll program as soon as next spring. The New York Times reports it would be the first such tolling program in the United States.

Toronto City Council has previously tried to implement tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to fund transit and infrastructure projects. But the plan was quashed by the provincial government in early 2017.

Tolls on any road in Ontario require approval from cabinet.

“If we want to get serious about addressing congestion and getting our region moving, we do need to be looking at both the supply of transportation, but also demand, and how we price transportation,” said Siemiatycki.

“Every day there’s a fresh nightmare that awaits as you travel through the core by car, and I think that speaks to where we’re at as a city.”


Have you adopted a creative new commute because of construction downtown? Send us an email detailing the changes you’ve made at torontotips@cbc.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Brockbank is a reporter for CBC Toronto’s Enterprise Unit. Fuelled by coffee, she digs up, researches and writes original investigative and feature stories. nicole.brockbank@cbc.ca

With files from Angelina King and Rianna Lim

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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