Highway 401 as it runs through the Greater Toronto Area is among the widest roads in the world, spanning 18 lanes at its broadest point and often clogged in every single one.

To some, its monster traffic jams are a bellwether of just how badly southern Ontario needs more highways. The Ontario government widened a section of the 401 west of Toronto last year in what it said was a move aimed at reducing gridlock, with Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney calling it a “step forward” in getting “drivers home to their loved ones faster.” (Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation didn’t answer when asked for data on traffic flow before and after the widening.) 

To others, however, Highway 401 is proof that adding highway capacity — which the Ontario government is proposing to do by adding more lanes in some places and building new infrastructure too, like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass — does not fix urban traffic woes. If it was actually possible to permanently relieve traffic by adding lanes, they say, the 401 should be flowing nicely. But it’s not. It’s also an era of climate change, and governments are trying to cut emissions like those from cars: isn’t it time to focus public efforts, and dollars, on lower-emissions options like public transit?

At the centre of all of this is the oft-ignored concept of induced demand, which shows that building new highways or expanding existing ones might seem to relieve congestion at first, but over time, attracts more drivers. Before long, new lanes are just as crowded as the old ones were.

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“If you think that by expanding road capacity you’re going to reduce traffic congestion, then you are making a very determined effort to ignore a lot of history,” Matthew Turner, a professor in the department of economics at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said. He has studied induced demand for decades, with some of his seminal work on the issue done while he was at the University of Toronto, steps away from the Ontario Legislature.

Yet highway networks across North America — Ontario included — have continued to expand. The Ontario government has said it considers induced demand as it plans all major transportation projects, but that the need to unclog the roads is so enormous that new highways are still necessary, alongside major investments in public transit.

Behind closed doors, however, staff have been more dismissive of the concept, according to a Nov. 2021 email chain obtained by The Narwhal through freedom of information. In the emails, staff from Premier Doug Ford’s office and the Ministry of Transportation conferred about how to respond to media questions about its highway plans, including some about induced demand.

“Induced demand is a red herring, silly thing,” wrote Patrick Sackville — a principal secretary to Ford at the time — in one message. Sackville has since been promoted to be Ford’s chief of staff.

“It’s like saying ‘Are you worried that reducing taxes will not only make current Ontarians better off but also attract new ones/businesses?’ Duh [and] if we could be so lucky,” wrote Sackville, who didn’t respond to requests for an interview from The Narwhal.

A highway seen from above
Highway 401 in the Greater Toronto Area is 18 lanes at its widest point, making it one of the broadest highways in the world. Even so, it’s often clogged up, especially at rush hour. Photo: Stephane Legrand / Shutterstock

“It’s like a ‘Forgive us for making life easier and more convenient and people wanting that.’ More people might drive, sure, but it’s so they can accept a new job, start their family, buy stuff … and it’s not like we are laggards on transit and other options for people.”

“All really good points,” Ivana Yelich, then the premier’s director of media relations, wrote back. Yelich is now a deputy chief of staff for the premier. 

Turner doesn’t dispute that new roads can deliver value by helping people move. But he still said that they won’t unclog roads in the long run.

“If you are building roads because you want to reduce traffic, that’s a terrible idea,” Turner said. “If you’re building roads because you want to move people around, the roads will still be busy, but they’ll be bigger so that we move more people.”

So why is it so hard for policy decisions to match the knowledge we have of induced demand? Here’s a rundown of what the concept means, why it’s so often a tough sell for lawmakers and how cities can do a better job of cracking down on congestion.

A map showing the proposed routes of the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413.
The proposed routes of the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413. The new Ontario highways, if built, could help more people get around. But decades of research shows they likely wouldn’t make traffic any better. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal

Understanding induced demand 

Dubbed the “fundamental law of highway congestion,” the existence of induced demand is confirmed by evidence going back to the 1960s. Some critics say it’s overexaggerated, but most experts agree it exists. The concept also applies to a ton of other things, like public transportation and bike lanes — when you give people more of something or make it easy to access, they tend to use it more.

But it’s tough to get the idea to catch on when it comes to highways, in part because it goes against common understanding of how traffic works. People tend to think of cars on an urban highway like liquid flowing through a pipe — if the pipe gets wider, the liquid drains faster. But in reality, city traffic actually behaves more like a gas, expanding to fill whatever space is available.

Turner compares it to a bakery selling cheap bread: the easy access attracts people who might not need it otherwise, making the lineup so long that people who actually need the food might not get any. 

How does that play out when it comes to new highways? Well, at first, traffic will indeed move faster through new highways and expanded lanes. But as word spreads about the newly-unclogged route, some people might switch from other modes of transportation, like trains or buses, to driving. Others might start taking car trips that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Estimates vary about how long this process takes, but before too long, the same old congestion almost always comes back.

In Los Angeles, for example, a 2014 project aimed at widening the Interstate 405 freeway cost the public over $1 billion. Within a year, commuting times on the highway were a minute slower than they were before.

The Ontario government’s own projections show that congestion won’t exactly stop being a problem on its new highways, either. If Highway 413 is built, rush hour traffic by 2041 will slow to 55 km/h, the province’s own modelling shows. Similar modelling for the Bradford Bypass shows the highway will likely be clogged within the first year it opens, according to freedom of information documents reported by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star last year: which is probably why the Ministry of Transportation has been quietly planning to double the number of lanes on the bypass by 2041 in an effort to clear the new roadway.

Even if adding lanes to highways did help to reduce congestion, that solution wouldn’t work forever. Eventually, cities would run out of space. Video: Katherine Cheng / The Narwhal

What would effective solutions to highway congestion look like? 

Environmentalists and transit advocates often say the main way to tackle Ontario’s traffic woes is to increase access to public transportation, which the provincial government is also aiming to do. More transit would help more people move around, and is good for society in other ways, like lowering carbon emissions and other types of pollution. But it probably wouldn’t make the roads any clearer — some people would choose to take the train over the highway, but more cars would simply fill that empty space.

So what does that leave? According to Turner, the one thing that’s actually proven to work is congestion pricing, or charging a fee to drivers entering clogged city highways at peak times. The idea is, the toll would encourage drivers to make trips at off-peak times when highways are less crowded anyway, or use another method to get where they need to go. In the Greater Toronto Area, Highway 407 is tolled and charges users more during peak times, though that road has been a sore spot for the public since it was privatized in 1998.

After all, you can’t keep adding lanes forever — sooner or later, cities will run out of space. Such policies are already in place in Singapore and London. 

“I understand why people resist it,” Turner said of congestion pricing. “But I think it’s pretty inevitable.”

The idea has already been pitched in Toronto, too. Mayor John Tory won city council’s approval to toll the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway in 2016, but then-premier Kathleen Wynne kiboshed the idea over concerns about raising the cost of living. The current provincial government is also against the idea, scrapping existing tolls on Ontario highways east of Toronto and making policy changes that make it easier and cheaper to drive. 

Affordability problems could be tackled with subsidized toll road passes for lower-income people, Turner said. But even so, it wouldn’t be fair or equitable to implement congestion pricing without giving commuters better and affordable ways to get around, said Rahul Mehta, a member of several Greater Toronto environmental groups and the founder of Sustainable Mississauga.

The Greater Toronto Area doesn’t have a lot of great public transit options for getting into and around the city right now. Metrolinx, a provincial crown corporation that operates the regional GO Transit service, cut train and bus service during the COVID–19 pandemic. The Toronto Transit Commission is also raising fares while slashing service levels on an already-strained system. New projects are in the works, like a light rail line in the suburbs of Brampton and Mississauga and a new subway line in Toronto, but they won’t be ready for years to come.

Introducing tolls without improving transit means “people will just cram themselves onto the same and frequent trains and infrequent buses,” Mehta said. “In fact, that’s where you’ll get the massive pushback if it’s not done properly, before the tolls even happen.”

Induced demand applies to public transit too — most of the time, when it’s built in the right place, people will use it. So, Mehta suggests, wouldn’t it be better to harness the phenomenon by inducing demand for public transit instead, reaping climate benefits along the way? If governments are always looking to build more roads in anticipation of future congestion that’s being sparked with each new lane, could we apply that logic to more sustainable options instead?

“It’s very frustrating that every single mode is being treated in a different way when the same rules apply to them,” Mehta said.

Why do so many governments keep building highways in spite of the evidence?

Highways have been the default way of moving people around North America for generations, and changing that is easier said than done. In Ontario, highways are the entire reason the Ministry of Transportation exists. When it was created in 1916, it was originally called the Department of Public Highways of Ontario. And many people who use highways for commuting and trucking are in favour of expanding them.

There are a few more factors at play too, Turner said. Alternatives like congestion pricing can repel people who don’t like the expansion of government. Also, people don’t like changing their behaviour. And they really don’t like paying for things that used to be free. But people will likely come around eventually because there isn’t another option, Turner added.

“People organize their lives around traffic congestion in Toronto,” Turner said. “It is a central part of people’s lives … As long as we don’t find a way to address it, it’s going to keep getting worse.”

Cars on a highway, with all lanes busy
Evidence of induced demand has been clear for decades. But all the while, governments across North America, Ontario included, have continued to expand highway networks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mehta said he’d like to see a massive public education effort to help people understand how adding highway capacity doesn’t help, and that the climate and health benefits of cutting down on car travel can be enormous.

“It really would require local champions for years and years and years,” Mehta said. “Not an easy thing to do.”

Are there any jurisdictions that have this figured out? 

The idea of factoring induced demand into transportation planning has begun to catch on in some places. In California, an expansion of Route 710 was cancelled last year after the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that widening it would violate clean air legislation. 

The New York state legislature has also voted in favour of a plan to implement congestion pricing in New York City. Though the idea is still waiting on final approvals, it’s expected to generate US$1 billion per year in revenue, which would be used to improve subways and buses. 

At a minimum, Turner said, it would be good if the public can start have discussions about tackling congestion that rely on the facts — not outdated ideas that can be disproven. “It’d be nice to see those things get aired out.”

Updated Feb. 17, 10:15 a.m. PT: a previous version of the story incorrectly stated the location of Brown University.

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