Getting HOT Lanes Right Means Getting Everyone Onboard

HOT lanes - Ontario - congestion pricing
Livable Cities

By Kevin Vuong

Now that we know when and where HOT lanes are coming, the next critical question is how do we bring GTHA commuters along for the ride?

Earlier this week Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca announced that the Ontario government will be moving forward with a high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes pilot in the summer of 2016.

Now that we have an idea of when, it’s time we discussed the how. Not the logistical how of the pilot, but the how of ensuring that this pilot is a success? How do we ensure Ontarians understand why we need HOT lanes and that it’s for their benefit? Because in the absence of strong public support, progress on this front will be slow and painful.

If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that Minnesota and Stockholm introduced congestion pricing over a decade ago. HOT lanes is not a new idea. It’s come up time and again championed by economists and policy wonks alike, but we have lacked the public support and as such the political will to move forward.

What’s different this time around? Well between the cost to productivity ($7 billion), health ($4-7 billion), and wasted time away from our loved ones (priceless), we really cannot afford to delay any further. This has provided the provincial government with the political courage to move forward without widespread public support.

However, in a calculated move to minimize public uproar, only two pilots have been planned. One on the QEW and another on Highway 427. This is a step in the right direction, but the impact will be muted without a comprehensive roll out. For example, there is no word on whether there will be pilots on Toronto’s most congested highways, the DVP and the Gardiner. We needed these pilots yesterday and many more than just two, so we must do everything today to ensure these are not only successful, but that the foundation is set for more pilots in the future.

We need an informed public who understands how HOT lanes work, how it is not another tax grab, and how it benefits them.

There are two key ingredients needed for a successful pilot: a strong education campaign and a transparent pilot.

Combating misinformation

Educating the public on how HOT lanes work is vital to the pilots’ success. The policy wonks already get it. The economists see the value. The average Ontarian does not.

Additionally, some are exacerbating the information gap by incorrectly characterizing HOT lanes as “Lexus Lanes”. Others are capitalizing on our Canadian fondness for complaining about taxes. These groups are polarizing the discussion and driving the narrative to be about the rich vs. the poor when in actuality it’s about changing social behaviour, creating options, and incentivizing alternate modes of transportation.

Knowing where the funds will go

This takes me to the need for transparency. No matter who you speak to, high or low income, university or high school educated, or where you go, the first reaction to HOT lanes is always a groan followed by an exasperated sigh of “not another tax grab”. The best way to combat this gut reaction is for people to know where the money raised will go.

It must not go into a general pool of funds. This pricing tool is about reducing congestion so the money raised must go towards reducing congestion such as increasing public transit or improving road infrastructure.

Tell the HOT lane stories

Minister Del Duca must help Ontarians to understand that HOT lanes provide more choice to Ontarians from all walks of life – not just the rich. They must show us how congestion pricing will get everyone moving faster.

The best way for the Ontario government to combat misinformation and educate the public is story-telling. Tell the story of little Emma who suffers from asthma because of all the emissions she’s breathing in from cars sitting in gridlock. Or Nathan, who is at risk of not being able to buy holidays gifts for his family because he’s been late to pick up his son, and had to pay late penalties.

Show us how congestion is hurting everyday Ontarians, and how HOT lanes can help us to live more happy and productive lives. Minister Del Duca, it’s time we start setting the record straight on HOT lanes. Let’s start by humanizing the costs of congestion because traffic, and its solution, is all about the people.

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