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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

When the Numbers Don’t Add up: The Need to Study Comprehensive Transportation Costs in Canada

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Photo courtesy of kennymatic via Wikipedia.

Many of Canada’s major regional municipalities are expected to grow significantly over the coming decades. Among the myriad of challenges to be faced by professionals and authorities will be how to accommodate complex transportation demands while simultaneously ensuring more sustainable outcomes.

While this would never be without its difficulties, many of the pressing conditions that will need to be addressed to meet sustainability objectives (e.g. how to provide a balance of travel options to sprawling suburbs, securing funding for comprehensive transit upgrades, ensuring land use policies remain congruent to multimodal travel, etc.) reflect the legacy of historic outlooks and decisions-making processes concerning urban transportation and land use planning. While undoubtedly a variety of factors have contributed to the state of present-day transportation planning contexts, I would posit one of the main contributors has historically been a basic failure to include the proper valuation of transportation costs and benefits in the decision making process.

We can understand the absence of these metrics in the decision making process by considering how we currently plan and decide upon municipal transportation projects in Canada. We all want to believe that, when it comes to public works (which concern the public realm and are enabled using public funds), a seamless alignment exists between technical criteria and government policy. That this has proven to be more the exception than the rule speaks to certain shortcomings in both of the major “estates” governing these processes – industry, and elected decisions makers.

While transportation professionals in Canada have admittedly achieved great strides in recent years in shifting the focus of their efforts towards planning for sustainable transportation systems, they have nonetheless been slow to adopt a most critical asset into their regular practice – measuring the full cost of transportation impacts. Briefly, full cost accounting of transportation encompasses the monetization of a number of different impacts through which transportation affects society, the environment, the economy, and individuals. These could include for example, congestion costs, pollution impacts, health impacts, infrastructure costs, personal operating costs, etc.

While certain transportation agencies have made attempts to quantify limited impacts under various circumstances, more comprehensive assessments have not yet been transited into workable forms for practitioners or integrated into industry standards and daily practice. This has severely limited practitioners’ ability to measure comprehensive costs and long-term impacts of transportation plans/infrastructure. In the same light, this also limits the industry’s ability to provide cogent and decisive recommendations to decision makers supported by strong and unequivocal technical indicators.

While this no doubt represents a tremendous lost opportunity for industry professionals to add clarity to the consequences of transportation policies, it cannot be said that the industry has been wholly bankrupt in recognizing the importance of full-cost transportation accounting. To the contrary, despite currently lacking functional tools to this effect, many transportation agencies across Canada have strongly advocated the need to mitigate against wider (albeit poorly defined) transportation impacts and, in many cases, have succeeded in recruiting awareness from elected decision makers with regards to implementing sustainable transportation solutions. The problem is the subsequent (and near ubiquitous) full stop in translating this advocacy into policy and targeted action. This is a trend that has plagued (with exceptions) many major transportation projects in Canadian cities and regional municipalities.

To be clear, this is not meant to be “one size fits all” indictment of individual councils or governments – although some have been more willing to engage technical recommendations. Rather, it speaks to a historic oversight of not having transportation impacts inscribed into the structure of government decisions making processes. To classify the status of transportation impact costs at our federal level as “pending” would be an understatement.  Barely a blip on the radar of Transport Canada, they have wholly failed to percolate (even in the faintest sense) down to the lower level governments, which largely influence municipal/regional transportation policies.

The problem here is that transportation impacts are not monetized in a practical way, and in effect, remain off the legers of authorities (e.g. the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Environment, Provincial governments, etc.) that should be keeping them on their books as real costs. Hence, they are essentially invisible. This means that even if an expert case is made for considering transportation impacts (in whatever form they currently or may potentially exist), there is still no financial structure through which these costs can be budgeted, traded, or accounted for – in other words, made “real”. This makes it almost impossible for these “costs” to have any tangible meaning in the eyes of policy makers.

Without the substance provided by monetizing transportation impacts and the inherent structure they provide in matching solutions with demands, major municipal/regional transportation projects often become highly politicized and chaotic. With this in mind, it is no surprise political gridlock has prevented the City of Toronto from making a major transit move in decades, while in Metro Vancouver, the fate of future transit investment potentially rests upon a voter referendum instigated by a provincial government happy to sit on the fence when it comes to recognizing the importance that transit will play in a growing region. Ultimately, not having these metrics play a part in our planning and decisions making process compromises our ability to keep our urban areas livable, healthy and economically competitive.

That we should be measuring comprehensive transportation impacts might seem obvious. You might also be relieved to know that the “how” of it has largely already been worked out, insofar that calculating these metrics has already been an established industry practice in many European countries for decades (some good examples would be Germany, Denmark, Sweden, or the UK). Furthermore, they are also an ingrained part of government practice, where many national transport ministries maintain a unified government standard for assessing impacts. These have been quite rightly put to good use as inputs into policy making, and in evaluating investments in major infrastructure projects. The processes followed in these nations serve as an excellent model that Canada would be wise to follow, and one that is undoubtedly within reach for a country with high technical expertise and strong professional institutions.

In this spirit, I’ve attempted (with great success I believe) to replicate many of the methods currently utilized in Europe to calculate the cost of comprehensive transportation impacts for the City of Vancouver. The results of this analysis, which I have written about extensively, portend greatly to matters of future transportation planning in the Metro Vancouver Region.

Ultimately, it is the job of transportation professionals to continue to provide the best possible information and advocate for the best solutions. It’s my hope that this work serves as an initial foray into a topic that deserves much more attention in the future in Canada.

For the inquisitive reader, see the full six part series of analysis and discussion of comprehensive transportation costs done for the City of Vancouver. Each article can be found at this link;


George Poulos, EIT, MSCP. George is a transportation engineer-in-training as well as a recent Masters graduate of the School of Regional and Community Planning (SCARP) at UBC. He has previously worked for consulting engineers on a variety of transportation and municipal projects. Originally from Ontario, he currently lives in Vancouver. 



  1. Rural ridings, with its lower population numbers, have a better representation in both provincial and federal parliaments. Therefore, the urban ridings, even though they have higher populations are not able to solve urban problems. Rural ridings don’t care about urban public transit needs, for example, because they don’t use it.

  2. When one looks at the reasons certain TO projects have gone forward, one can understand why powerful individuals would not want to allow any transit vetting process that can not be rigged.
    SmartTrack was designed by commercial real estate developer Iian Dobson. The Yonge extension was spearheaded by a politician whose family owned land along the line, and whose company, Sorbara Group, also partners with Tribute (York U developments). RF said developers told him they would pay for the Sheppard subway extension if he pushed it. The original Sheppard subway was pushed by developers, through Lastman, after the OMB blocked their proposals east of the Yonge Street corridor due to a lack of transportation capacity. Stinz supported the Scarborough subway in hopes of winning Scarborough in her Mayoral campaign.
    If the bureaucrats take up the cause, maybe the next Premier or Mayor will adopt it, at least for future, (someone else’s) projects.

  3. Yonge ext should be York ext
    or Vaughan ext
    Scarborough subway is the Bloor Danforth Scarborough extension

  4. Thanks to both for the comments,

    Always happy to hear different takes.

    The thrust of the article was certainly to demonstrate the conspicuous absence of comprehensive transportation costs within industry practice and government consideration. Though not elaborated upon in the article, the reasons for such are more a product of history than anything else.

    It’s unfortunate to say, but North American societies (both industry and government) have been rather slow on the uptake of recognizing the need for more “counseled” practices. We can find evidence of this in the way our cities are laid out, by the automobiles that we drive, and the technologies that we employ (or don’t employ). We could make a long list indeed.

    The fact of the matter is that our transportation professionals have never incorporated comprehensive transportation costs into regular practice, and homegrown academic research on the subject is paper thin. As a consequence, the utility of such metrics have simply never entered the conscious practice of our transportation industries, or the governmental frameworks which likewise administrate transportation issues.

    The demarcation of ridings simply don’t figure in (I would say that’s a separate file), and I would certainly never attribute deference given to “rural ridings” from holding back critical knowledge from the nations universities, professional communities, and workplaces. This issue is also positively NOT a midnight struggle against powerful interest groups leery of devices which might “appropriately vet” transit plans. One of the main focuses of the article was to impress upon the fact that these practices are not followed across the whole of Canada, in both government and in private practice – far beyond the tendrils of a development conglomerate. This says much more about the knowledge base among our transportation professionals, than about the influence of “developers” in city planning.