By Jordan W. Charness

It’s a funny thing the way your attitude changes depending on the situation you’re actually in. When you’re walking down the street, cars are the enemy. They splash you and can be a danger to life and limb. But as soon as you get into your car, you forget what it’s like to be a pedestrian and all of a sudden you can’t imagine why anybody would dare to run across a red light or cross the street in the middle.

The same thing goes for traffic. When you get into your car in the morning you’re pretty much the only one in your driveway and subconsciously feel that you should be the only one on the road all the way to work. It always comes as quite a surprise that masses of other people decided to drive to work just like you did. You turn on the radio and listen to the traffic reports hoping that just because you left 30 seconds earlier or later today the entire traffic pattern will change from the way it’s been for the past five years.

Those people who drive to work every day feel that they have a constitutional right to get into their cars and roll in to work unfettered by other people’s driving habits.

Oddly enough, in the past few years the price of cars has actually gone down. Interest rates on car loans have sometimes hovered close to 0 making it affordable for more and more people to purchase their own cars. Cars themselves have become more reliable and tend to last longer with less maintenance and repairs. Add all of this together, and mix in the fact that “downtown” has enjoyed an urban renewal, and what do you get? – the centre of the city with a major case of congestion.

Most major cities in the Western world are facing the same problem but each one of them chooses to deal with it in a different way.

New York City decided to enact several laws that would discourage drivers from clogging Manhattan’s arteries. At just about every corner you find a sign that says, “don’t block the box”. The box in question is the intersection. Anyone who gets stuck in the middle of the intersection after the light has turned and is thereby blocking traffic is liable to a serious fine. This law is meticulously enforced. New York City also has a large fleet of reasonably priced yellow taxicabs and people are encouraged to leave their cars at home and commute into the city and then use taxicabs to get around.

Toronto has built toll roads around the city that may lessen some of the traffic going through the city. Other measures are aimed at making public transportation more convenient rather than penalizing people who use their cars.

London, England has come up with a rather draconian system whereby they charge every person who drives in the centre of the city the equivalent of about $12 a day for the privilege. In a system of photo radar gone amok, 800 cameras monitor more than 160 entryways to the centre city and take photos of everyone’s license plate. The owner then has until 10 PM on the same day to pay for his driving permit. If they wait until after 10 PM., but before midnight, they pay double. If they wait until after midnight, they’re subject to a fine of up to $200!

There are several exceptions to the law which exempt bicyclists and people who live downtown. The system is relatively new and I haven’t yet heard how successful it’s been at reducing the amount of people who drive into the city. I wonder whether our privacy laws would allow for the government keeping a record of the movement of every car into and out of the centre of any Canadian city. Talk about a Big Brother keeping an eye on you!

As far as I’m concerned, if we just got rid of winter we would solve most of our downtown congestion. Just think back to those marvellous warm summer days when there really wasn’t that much traffic on the streets. If only every day was summer!

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