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New study examines the response to traffic congestion by Canadian cities

New study examines the response to traffic congestion by Canadian cities

Canada, with its wide open spaces, is not immune to the challenge of traffic congestion. Our nation is one of the most urbanized in the world, with 82 percent of our population living in urban areas, compared to 53 percent of the world’s population. As a result, traffic congestion has become a costly problem for many cities across the country.

Today, in partnership with the City of Vancouver, the City of Surrey, and TransLink, Public Sector Digest published a comprehensive new study that explores traffic congestion across Canada’s municipalities. The study An Analysis of Traffic Congestion and Policy Solutions for Canadian Municipalities demonstrates how Canadian cities identify, measure, and act in response to the congestion challenge. It is clear from this research that there is a lack of standardization across Canada’s municipalities in traffic congestion measurement. With greater collaboration, planning, and sharing of best practices across communities, Canadian cities will be able to better understand their unique traffic congestion challenges, allowing for the implementation of the most effective solutions. To date, only half of surveyed Canadian cities report to have traffic congestion reduction plans in place.

Download the full study here.

Register for the free webinar with project partners PSD, Vancouver, Surrey and Translink on November 22nd, 2016. 

Measuring Traffic Congestion

There are many indicators available to cities to quantify and measure traffic congestion. Some indicators measure congestion intensity, some measure travel time, others measure fuel consumption statistics and multi-modal delays across a wider transportation network. This study found that there is no one congestion measurement that comprehensively addresses every challenge – measurements are often dependent on the environment. For some communities, there will inevitably be more focus on urban-related measurements, such as average traffic speed during intense peak periods. Conversely, more rural or less-compact communities may, for example, hone their efforts on indicators relating to commute duration. Each indicator may be of some value to any given community, but some may be more applicable than others.

Finding Solutions

As part of this study, 26 Canadian municipalities with populations over 100,000 inhabitants were surveyed in addition to 3 regional transportation bodies. Most survey respondents answered that congestion is a problem in their respective communities and most have a means of measuring congestion in order to better grasp and tackle the challenge. Consequently, every surveyed community reported to have implemented some type of mechanism to reduce congestion. The type of mechanism used, however, varied. A majority of respondents have implemented most of the measures listed in the survey, including bike lane and roadway expansions, while three of these measures have not been as commonly implemented. These three – HOV/HOT lanes, pricing measures, and smart parking – have not been widely considered or implemented. This may be a result of a common characteristic shared between these three measures: they are relatively costly both financially and politically. In contrast to other measures, such as bike lane expansion and implementation of public intelligent systems, installing HOV/HOT lanes is not only more expensive to finance, but also less palatable to the everyday voter.

While these measures were unlikely to be implemented by the majority of respondents, their likelihood of having considered these measures varied based on whether or not the respondents have a congestion reduction plan in place. Interestingly, only half of respondents have a plan. Those who do not are more likely to have never considered pricing strategies, and those that do are more likely to have at least discussed them. Having a congestion reduction plan in place may indicate that communities have concretely identified congestion as a challenge in their communities. Having a plan symbolizes a thorough and formal approach to congestion management, meaning that most measures available to minimize the problem would at least have been considered. Intuitively, communities with a formal plan will be more likely to identify congestion as a problem, and are therefore more likely to consider each possible reduction measure.

Among measures that were more likely to be considered, the implementation of bike lanes and roadway expansion techniques were almost universal among respondents. Again, introducing the variable of having a congestion plan elicits a notable trend. Every respondent who answered ‘yes’ to having a congestion reduction plan had implemented both bike lane and roadway expansion techniques. This may be a result of the intersection of two factors: First, bike lane and roadway expansion techniques are relatively simple – they are significantly less costly financially and politically. Second, those who have a plan are more likely to examine each measure. Implementing innovative and complex measures requires financial and political capital, while also requiring a broader, concrete framework of reducing traffic congestion.

Regarding implementation, this study found that communities are more likely to implement traffic congestion reduction measures if their population size is larger and if their population density is higher. For measurement, most communities have used their traffic data to update and make their traffic signal phasing more efficient. Interestingly, many communities also use the information they gather to plan for future alternative measures to improve congestion in their communities. 


Testing Solutions

Several innovative and tested solutions to traffic congestion were explored in this study: HOT lanes, road charge programs, and smart parking. Despite political and financial hurdles, these mechanisms have been implemented successfully by leading North American communities in order to address traffic congestion. Through deliberate planning and consultations, these projects and innovative solutions have gained significant momentum and have demonstrated signs of reducing congestion. With most projects still in their pilot phase, their true value has yet to be realized, but as congestion continues to escalate in Canada and elsewhere in the world, innovative approaches like these should, at the very least, be considered to address this growing challenge.



This study is important as it brings together the thoughts of various cities and transportation agencies across Canada to help come to a common definition of congestion for an urban environment.  It will also create a consolidated source to explore what cities are doing to address congestion.  This is only the beginning - sharing knowledge and strategies will be crucial as we move into the future.

-       Lon LaClaire, Director of Transportation, City of Vancouver


Surrey’s goal from this study is to define congestion levels consistently across metro Vancouver so that cities and the public have a common understanding and perception of congestion.

-       Amer Afridi, Traffic Signal Team Leader, City of Surrey

Even substantial new investment in transit can’t solve the congestion problem on its own. To tackle congestion and to make sure that any new road capacity isn’t soon gobbled up by traffic jams, there is only one tool that has a proven track record: pricing.

            -       Andrew McCurran, A/Director, Strategic Planning & Policy, TransLink

Trends in traffic congestion management across Canada’s urban centres indicate that although much work needs to be done in better defining and measuring traffic congestion, many communities are making headway in their planning. In order to garner buy-in for an innovative solution to any urban challenge, municipal staff must have a proper plan in place, supported by valid data and if possible, case studies.

-       Tyler Sutton, Editor, Public Sector Digest



For further information contact:


Aleks Dzintars, Lead Author, Public Sector Digest

519.690.2565 ext 2719

adzintars [at] publicsectordigest [dot] com