Chapter 3: Innovation, Change, and Uncertainty

3.0 Introduction

The world of transportation is changing rapidly. At the same time, the tools available to transportation planners and policy makers are expanding in new ways, while the range of transportation system users’ needs are becoming more complex. Moreover, in an increasingly interconnected global society, there is greater potential for external opportunities or risks to have local impacts. Because there is no single definition of the “best” transportation action, the exercise of public policy-making always involves steering a careful course between how the world changes, what transportation planning and policy can accomplish, and what outcomes are seen to be desirable. Fundamental questions in this regard include:

  • What is Ontario’s vision?
  • What does the changing world mean for that vision?
  • How do we get there?

In Ontario, the Province’s role will likely continue to be to establish the regulatory context and to nurture initiatives that are outside the domain of public sector action.

3.1 Business as Usual?

Technologies have changed and continue to change, as shared mobility introduces new ways to get around, and self-driving vehicles continue to make progress toward becoming a reality. Ontario’s economy is also changing, as the movement of goods in the Greater Golden Horseshoe is increasingly shaped by the internet, by a shift away from manufacturing toward the provision of services, and by global trends in transportation. At the same time, social values are changing, as new growth management priorities are incorporating climate change objectives that are now supported at both the federal and provincial level. Internal policy priorities have also changed, with large-scale transit service expansion being deployed as part of the Regional Express Rail plan, and congestion pricing increasingly becoming a part of the public discourse in the Greater Toronto Area. Amid such change, the role of a new 400-series highway is far from clear.

The goals and techniques of transportation planning are also changing. For generations, the province’s transportation system has advanced opportunities by providing access to new lands and by increasing transportation options in highly-congested urban cores. Since techniques for transportation planning have conventionally been based on learning from the past, technically-based decision-making processes tend to reinforce existing trends. However, in the context of the rapidly changing world around us, opportunities for positive, transformational improvements may be lost if transportation planning simply continues to reinforce the status quo. The goal of balancing urban change and adaptation to new challenges, while identifying and preserving social values will remain at the center of progressing toward an uncertain future.

In this chapter, the Panel examines broad external and global trends, and discusses both their relative certainty and their potential implications for transportation planning and policy making in the GGH. These trends include changes in four key areas:

  • technology;
  • the economy;
  • environmental conditions; and
  • demographics.

3.2.1 Technology

Over the last two centuries, many technologies have radically changed transportation services, urban travel and city building. The steam engine, the elevator (enabling today’s skyscrapers), electricity, the automobile and the microprocessor have all transformed how we move. A technological revolution of similar magnitude in transportation is being enabled by better information gathering, sharing and use. Technology-enabled services, such as e-commerce and shared mobility, are already changing how people travel, and an even greater shift can be foreseen with the coming of self-driving vehicles.

While these emerging technologies promise to bring significant change by 2031, the extent to which they will transform mobility in the GGH also rests on Ontario residents’ preferences and future government policies. Moreover, their potential benefits and consequences need to be examined along several parameters of change, including, among others:

  • changes in how we travel;
  • changes in how much we travel;
  • lifestyle choices;
  • fairness and equity;
  • opportunities for individuals with accessibility challenges; and
  • environmental outcomes.


E-commerce, the online purchasing and direct shipment of retail purchases, is a technology-enabled transportation service that has already begun to change how people travel and purchase products. Rather than visiting local music or book stores, restaurants or other retailers, for example, consumers now have the option of purchasing music online, ordering books to be sent by mail, and having their groceries delivered to the front door. While limited data exist on e-commerce rates in Canada, the indications are that as a portion of total retail sales, e-commerce has been growing by 14 to 15 per cent a year since 2012 (Taylor, 2015).

E-commerce clearly represents a qualitative change in how passengers travel and goods move, but it is not clear whether it also represents a quantitative change in total travel demand. For example, increases in goods movement travel may offset decreases in personal travel and, likewise, passengers may opt for qualitatively different types of travel when their retail needs can be met through e-commerce. In short, while the total amount of time, energy, and vehicle-kilometers of travel expended in an e-commerce future may not change on a daily basis, shifts in how the transportation system is used, if such shifts were better understood, could have implications for what types of transportation systems are necessary and how these systems are put in place.

Shared Mobility

Shared mobility refers to a group of technology-enabled behaviours that provide commuters with transportation options beyond traditional public transit and private car ownership. Shared mobility enables public use of for-hire private assets or services through better information provision in a common market (e.g., through a smartphone application). It also facilitates the further pooling of privately provided services already used by the public (e.g., parking, which is privately provided but available to many). Common types of shared mobility include car-sharing, ride-sourcing, bike-sharing and shared parking.

The recent widespread growth of shared mobility services in urban centres provides more choice for many transportation system users. Still, it remains unclear whether this growth in services will be transformative only to a subset of urban transportation system users, or whether, when, and how these services may extend to the broader population (Taylor et al., 2015). Shared mobility has the potential to change the relative role of both private auto ownership and public transit services alike; however, the impacts on overall travel demand are not yet clear. For example, while more convenient travel for more users could induce more travel, shared mobility could also lead to a time when there is an overall drop in private vehicle ownership.

Connected and Self-Driving Vehicles

Connected and self-driving vehicles are already being introduced to North American vehicle fleets and could dramatically change how passengers travel and goods are moved in Ontario. Even today’s comparatively low-cost vehicles come with standard options that include automatic lane-keeping, proximity sensors, adaptive cruise control, automatic stability control, and so on. As these technologies continue to advance, they will potentially bring significant opportunities and consequences for transportation. For example, connected and self-driving vehicles could:

  • improve safety and reduce collisions;
  • change the urban fabric of our cities;
  • increase travel by automobile;
  • complement or substitute for public transit services; and
  • assist in either reducing or increasing Ontario’s carbon footprint.

The impact of these technologies will depend on the joint actions of consumers, automobile producers and the public sector. Three possible implications are of particular interest in thinking about how these technologies may influence future infrastructure needs.

First, self-driving vehicles are likely to reduce the burden of travel. Willingness to drive has historically been limited by travel times, congestion levels, the inconvenience of accessing destinations and the relative convenience and competitiveness of alternatives such as public transit. With self-driving vehicles, time spent traveling could be used for tasks other than driving. As well, future travelers may no longer need to find a parking spot, ask for directions or go out of their way to avoid congestion. As a result, the personal burden of traveling in a vehicle could be significantly reduced.

Second, self-driving vehicles are likely to induce significant new travel demand. This technology may make travel easier for people who now have comparatively lower access to motorized vehicles or quality public transit, thereby generating new auto trips. These new users could include the elderly, the young and those facing accessibility challenges. In addition, since self-driving vehicles are expected to reduce the burden of travel, people may be willing to live further from work and accept a longer commute for the sake of lower-cost housing. In sum, both new and longer auto-based trips may result from self-driving vehicle technology. Beyond the need for public policymakers to decide whether such outcomes may be good or bad, such changes are potentially transformational.

Third, automated vehicles have the potential to increase the capacity of the road transportation system, although the extent, the direction and level of these changes are uncertain. Greater road capacity could result from improved vehicle safety, connected vehicle technology, platooning capabilities, faster speeds, closer following and smoother traffic patterns. In fact, some research suggests these increases could be up to 200 per cent in specific contexts (Shladover et al. 2012; Michael et al. 1998). However, competing evidence suggests that few capacity increases should be expected, that any change will most likely occur when self-driving vehicle adoption rates are very high, and that any increases in capacity may primarily be realized on highways rather than on local road systems (Olia, 2016).

In the Panel’s view, this emerging technology has the potential to be transformative. However, there is uncertainty on the timeframe and direction of this transformation. There is also uncertainty regarding what policy objectives self-driving cars can and should contribute to or accomplish.

3.2.2 Climate Change

Globally, there is increasing consensus on the critical need to address climate change. The Paris Agreement (2016) represents a significant international commitment to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Its goal is to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. The agreement also aims to strengthen climate change adaptation measures, especially in developing countries. Canada ratified the Paris Agreement in October 2016, and has outlined a two-year timeframe for the adoption of carbon pricing by all Canadian jurisdictions.

Despite these global commitments, it is uncertain how climate change action will affect transportation in Ontario. The province has already implemented a cap and trade system of carbon pricing through the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act (2016), which legislated ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets. The Act was followed by the Climate Change Action Plan (2016), a five-year implementation plan that identifies the transportation sector as the single largest producer of Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions, and one that is growing. The Climate Change Action Plan (2016) outlines five action areas to help meet the goal of reducing transportation emissions, including:

  • addressing the availability of lower carbon fuel;
  • increasing the use of electric vehicles;
  • supporting cycling and walking;
  • increasing the use of low-carbon trucks and buses; and
  • supporting accelerated construction and electrification of GO Regional Express Rail.

The Plan further expands emission reduction actions to include demand management and the encouragement of non-auto modes. However, these action areas have not yet been tied to targets, and thus there is uncertainty regarding how transportation as a whole will be affected.

3.2.3 International and Local Economy

Changes to the international economy are expected to have significant impacts on transportation in the Greater Golden Horseshoe by: 1) slowing economic growth, 2) shifting the economy’s composition from goods-producing jobs towards service jobs, and 3) changing global and local freight distribution systems. Although these changes are having major impacts on our society, their impacts on transportation planning and policy and travel are not yet clear.

The Ontario economy, like many other economies, is growing more slowly than in the past, and this shift will likely have implications for future changes in both the magnitude and quality of travel demand. Recent reporting by the Ministry of Finance (2017) indicates that economic growth in Ontario was 2.6 per cent annually between 1982 and 2016, but that it has declined and is forecast to continue at 2.1 per cent annually to 2040. Population growth is likewise expected to decrease: from 1.2 per cent annually to 0.8 per cent annually until 2040 (Ministry of Finance, 2017).

At the same time, the structure of Ontario’s economy is evolving. There has been a decline in the goods-producing sector’s share of employment, paralleled by growth in the services-producing sector’s share of employment. Of particular note is the fact that the manufacturing sector’s employment share has declined from 17.5 per cent in 1996 to 10.7 per cent in 2016 (Ministry of Finance 2017).

This shift in sectors affects not only goods movement patterns, but also commuting patterns as places of work change. Businesses are realizing that there are clear cost advantages when employees work remotely and share office facilities, and employees themselves find options that reduce commuting time attractive. As more employers adopt teleworking (working from home rather than commuting to the office), the relationship between homes and workplaces is also being redefined.

A final significant economic trend is that goods movement systems serving Ontario residents are evolving as a result of a number of external changes. In response to the expansion of the Panama Canal, goods movement firms, particularly those connected to American manufacturers and producers, are shifting from ports in the west (e.g., Los Angeles) to ports in the east (e.g., New York/New Jersey). Moreover, global shifts in manufacturing production from western to eastern Asia will likely increase the role of the Suez Canal and Atlantic crossings into eastern North American ports. The increased use of eastern seaports may lead to more long-haul truck movements, rather than transportation by train across North America combined with local truck connections, as is currently the norm. These changes would have an impact on transportation and goods movement in the western GTA, which is a key goods distribution hub connecting intermodal rail freight (CN Rail and CP Rail) with various private sector distribution facilities that depend on existing supply chains.

3.2.4 Demographics

The Greater Golden Horseshoe is under the influence of two major demographic groups that are likely to have a significant impact on future travel needs and transportation planning and policy: the baby boomers and the millennials. By 2041, the baby boomers will be between the ages of 65 and 85, and will represent 25 per cent of Ontario’s population, up from approximately 16 per cent today (see Figure 3-1). Although the period of productive work is expected to extend longer in individuals’ lives, people are also expected to live longer, due to improvements in health. This shift in demographics is expected to have implications for travel demand as the over-65 demographic group in 2040 is likely to be more active, travel more, travel differently and be more numerous than at present.

metrolinx discussionpaper for next reg transport plan

Figure 3-1: Metrolinx (2016) - Discussion Paper for the Next Regional Transportation Plan, June 2016.

The graph presents age distribution trends in the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area from 2016 forecasted to 2041. As a proportion of the GTHA population: youth are forecasted to decrease from representing 22% of the population in 2016 to 21% in 2041, young adults will decrease from 22% to representing 18% of the population in 2041, middle age individuals will decline slightly from representing 22% to 20% in 2041, adults (consisting of individuals aged 50 to 64) will decrease from representing 20% of the population in 2016 to approximately 17% in 2041, and seniors are forecasted to increase, from representing 15% of the population to approximately 23% in 2041.

More recent generations, and especially the millennials (those born between about 1984 and 2004) are using non-automobile modes of transportation more than their predecessors (Blumenberg et al., 2016; Kuhnimhof et al., 2013). Lower rates of automobile use appear to be related to both different preferences (Fajarindra Belgiawan et al., 2014) and the fact that most millennials entered the job market during a global recession and therefore have less wealth and own fewer automobiles (Blumenberg et al., 2016; Klein & Smart, 2016).

The longer-term implications of these travel behaviour changes, however, remain unclear. Some research suggests that millennials increase auto use when taking on additional jobs or responsibilities related to care for children or others. Other researchers note that some elements of these less car-intensive lifestyles persist over time and could change assumptions about travel behaviour into the future.

Because these demographic groups are so large, both baby boomers and millennials are expected to significantly shape travel demand and the fundamental travel needs at which transportation planning and policy efforts are directed. With more numerous and more active people over 65 years of age, and with millennials who adopt persistently different travel patterns than previous generations, both travel demand and the fundamental “transportation problem” are being reshaped. For example, while existing transportation planning efforts are often directed at accommodating new travel demand, changes by these two demographic groups both qualitatively and quantitatively change travel demand, and may well lead to different transportation issues ‒ ranging from improving multi-modalism, enabling healthy lifestyles for active demographics with time, improving mobility for individuals with significant financial constraints, or improving accessibility for individuals with mobility challenges.

In sum, while the existing transportation planning and policy-making profession has developed from a history of accommodating travel demand, the new challenges in the public policy arena that are emerging from significant demographic change suggest that the traditional reasons for policy intervention may need to be re-examined.

3.3 Planning for Uncertainty

Transportation decision-making in the 21st-century needs to acknowledge the climate of uncertainty discussed above. Emerging technologies, economic trends, environmental conditions and economic and demographic shifts all demonstrate the potential to spark major changes in the way people and goods move around the province. While it is clear that future travel demand and travel patterns will differ from the past, at this point the measure and direction of change are difficult to predict.

The GTAW EA did not test its Recommended Actions against sources of uncertainty. In fact, many of the changes and future trends discussed here have only developed over the last 10 years. In the next chapter, the Panel tests the transportation-related benefits of the GTAW EA’s Recommended Actions, and explores whether a number of alternative future scenarios strengthen or weaken the case for moving forward with the EA and its proposed new highway.

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