“Our traffic is soul-crushing”: Meet the man trying to fix Toronto’s infamous gridlock

“Our traffic is soul-crushing”: Meet the man trying to fix Toronto’s infamous gridlock

Commuting in Toronto is maddening, and it’s driving the city to the brink. Kurtis McBride, a member of the city’s new congestion task force, has a plan to save us from our cars

Kurtis McBride standing in the Miovision offices wearing a blue button up shirt
Photo courtesy of the subject

Everyone knows Toronto traffic is terrible. No podcast is riveting enough to distract from the brain-melting experience of inching through downtown, counting the precious minutes that could be spent doing literally anything else. And now it’s official: a recent report says Toronto traffic is the third worst in the world. But there may be a light at the end of the Gardiner on-ramp. Last month, the Toronto Region Board of Trade convened a congestion task force, 19 business leaders who have been tapped to propose a new long-term plan for gridlock as well as ways to mitigate traffic in the short term.

Among those braving the task is Kurtis McBride, the CEO of Miovision, an Ontario-based company that uses AI-powered cameras to help cities improve traffic efficiency. Here, he tells us why congestion has spiralled out of control, how new tech could improve commute times and whether he thinks the City of Toronto will be willing to foot the bill.

Considering you run a traffic management company, is it safe to assume you drive?
I try to walk when it’s practical—or snowboard in the winter if I’m going downhill. But, yes, I definitely drive. Miovision’s headquarters are in Kitchener, but I often commute to Toronto by car. I grew up in the city, and my parents still live there.

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What do you think is the most hellish stretch of roadway in the city?
That’s a tough one. These days, if you’re trying to leave downtown, you could spend 40 minutes driving just three kilometres, so that’s not great.

You’ve just been appointed to the city’s new congestion task force. To quote Tom Cruise: “What’s up with the traffic in Toronto?”
There are many factors. A big one is that Toronto, like most places in North America, typically re-times its traffic signals every five to seven years: we evaluate traffic patterns in 20 per cent of the city and adjust all our signals based on those findings. Traditionally, cities have evolved relatively slowly, so that kind of timeline has worked. But, with Covid, we saw this one-time drastic change in people’s behaviour. Suddenly remote work was a thing, and people’s daily movements were completely different. Instead of everyone driving into town at the same time, some people would come in from out of town or others would just commute to a meeting or lunch throughout the day. Our system isn’t designed to keep up with sudden changes like that.

Fair, but traffic was bad even before the pandemic. What are some other factors?
Well, 300,000 people have moved into the downtown core in the last decade. Construction certainly drives traffic, but at the same time, not having construction would also lead to bad traffic—our existing infrastructure would eventually crumble. Another factor is that there are limits to what can be changed downtown. We may have roads we want to widen, but it’s not feasible because of condos or parks on either side. At the end of the day, there are two ways you can mitigate congestion. Cars are a relatively inefficient way to travel if you think about the amount of space they take up, often just to transport one or two people. Public transit, bikes and pedestrians take up a lot less of the road. I think anything cities can do to encourage shifts toward transit or cycling will help decrease the demand for road space. The other thing you can do is optimize traffic-signal timing, which is what we do at Miovision.

How does that work?
In the past, we’ve decided the duration of traffic signals in the city by spending a day collecting data, standing at the side of the road and counting how many cars go by. Then we spend six months manually analyzing that information. Because the process takes so much time, we can’t do it very often. But, if you integrate technology that allows you to take those measurements in real time, you can do the same exercise in a fraction of a second. That allows you to make adjustments much more frequently and keep up with changing road usage. It also takes into account variations across seasons. Traffic patterns aren’t the same in July, when we’re all headed to our cottages, as they are in September, when everyone’s driving their kids to school.

Related: Who broke the TTC? Inside Toronto’s public transit disaster

Where does AI come in?
We’ve designed traffic cameras that use AI to collect and analyze information about traffic patterns. It’s all anonymous—we’re not interested in collecting any identifying data, and we don’t photograph people’s licence plates or faces. We install them at intersections, and they can tell whether an object is a car, a bicycle or a pedestrian. So, for example, you can see if there are a lot of cars that want to go north or south but none that want to go east or went, then use that data to make decisions. Maybe when everyone’s commuting home, the majority of traffic is going north and south, so that green light should be on 80 per cent of the time. Maybe at lunch, people are going in all directions, so it needs to be more 50-50. There are also safety applications. If there’s a left turn where cars are frequently almost hitting pedestrians, we know it’s just a matter of time until someone actually does get hit. If we had that information, we could add in a protected left turn. You’d be shocked how many cities, including Toronto, currently use citizen complaints as their primary source of data for making millions of dollars worth of decisions.

Have other cities started implementing this kind of thing?
Absolutely. When Detroit came out of bankruptcy around a decade ago, it added this technology to all its intersections. We’ve already installed some in Toronto, in conjunction with the city’s traffic management department. Those include the ones that helped collect data for the Bloor Street bike lane project and the King Street transit corridor. But, right now, we’re at only about three per cent of the city’s intersections.

Giles Gherson, the president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, says congestion is costing Toronto over $11 billion annually in lost productivity. How does that calculation work?
I can’t speak to that exact number, but typically there are two costs that get factored in. If you’re idling in your car and stopping and starting, you’re burning a lot of fuel. So you can estimate how much fuel is being wasted because of congestion and multiply that by the price of gas. The second cost is time. How many hours are we all wasting just sitting in soul-crushing traffic? If you assume those hours could be spent working, you can multiply that time by the average hourly wage. Another way to look at it would be environmental impact—roughly 40 per cent of emissions in an urban environment comes from transportation, and stopping and starting cars plays a huge part in that.

And then there’s the cost of, as Guillermo del Toro put it, the “horrible road rage.”
Exactly—it’s about quality of life. Once I left Toronto for Waterloo, I never came back. A large part of that was because of the driving experience downtown. The stress that comes with the kind of traffic we have in Toronto sucks.

Do you think the city will foot the bill for the changes you’re proposing?
Well, traffic is costing them $11 billion now, and it’s only going to get worse if they do nothing. Ultimately, I don’t know how the city will think about the investment. But, if they don’t address it, I think it will be a $12-billion problem by next year.

Let’s say the task force comes up with stellar ideas and the city gleefully applies every one of them. How long until a person can zip across downtown during rush hour?
When Miovision deploys our equipment into cities, we usually see a 10 to 30 per cent improvement in the first month. We’ve already installed our cameras in about 100 of Toronto’s intersections. If there’s political will, we could probably be in the rest of them in about a year. Do I believe that will is there? Let’s just say there’s a reason we’re in this situation in the first place.

I must confess: I don’t have a driver’s licence. How will tackling traffic affect die-hard pedestrians?
In the ’70s, cities were planned completely around vehicular traffic. There’s been a movement away from that to a more holistic view of city streets. In my opinion, this task force shouldn’t be only about trying to minimize congestion; it should be about trying to optimize the overall performance of the traffic network, which includes all modes of transportation. To encourage people to walk or bike, you have to make sure it’s safe and pleasant to do so.

If we do finally solve the city’s traffic woes, what will we all complain about?
I travel around the world for my job, and the things that seem to bind humans together are our love of beer, our hatred of traffic and our desire to build a better world for our kids. So I think we’ll still complain about traffic—but at least we’ll be spared the embarrassment of being the world’s third most congested city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.