It hardly matters where you live, everyone's got their own traffic congestion horror story these days. It's a new go-to topic of conversation for Canadians that can even trump the weather. Worsening traffic problems are steadily choking our communities, and a consensus is building that rather than more highways, what the suburbs need is better public transit.

"Years ago I used to leave and there was no traffic. Now, it can be a coin toss," says Doug Burley, a firefighter from Barrie, Ont., who has been doing the same commute for 25 years. 

When he started doing the daily drive, the trip each way was well under an hour. These days, it's much longer.

"It's about an hour and 10 minutes at any given time," he says. "Snow or whatever adds to that by as much as a half hour to an hour. That's each way. It's a long, hectic drive."

The alarming part of Burley's story is that he isn't complaining about traffic in downtown Toronto. He faces clogged roads entirely within the suburbs, almost from the moment he pulls out of his driveway on his commute to Brampton, north-west of Toronto.

'We... have done a miserable job of adjusting our public transit system to serve the new land use pattern of employment.'— Barrie, Ont. mayor Jeff Lehman

And Burley's story is, sadly, far from unusual. In the Greater Toronto Area, Greater Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal and other cities, congestion is spread over enormous areas.

"Congestion's quite significant in greater Vancouver," says Robert Paddon, who's with Translink, Vancouver's transit authority. "In fact, there's less congestion downtown than in the suburban areas."

The reason is fairly simple. The car is the only way to get from A to B for the majority of people in this country.

Commuting costs

Paul Bedford, former chief planner at the City of Toronto and urban planning professor at Ryerson University, has some interesting numbers tied to the cumulative costs of car ownership. He uses 2011 figures from the Canadian Automobile Association, based on owning a Dodge Grand Caravan and driving it 18,000 kilometres per year.

"When you graduate [from university] and get your first job, you're probably going to work, give or take, from age 25 to 65. So there's 40 years there. So let's just take a look at this economic proposition. If you buy a car and spend $12,000 a year all-in, over 40 years you're spending almost half a million dollars for the privilege of owning and operating one car. If you own and operate two cars, it's a million bucks you're blowing out of your pocket on something that's worth nothing at the end. So the first thing is [monetary] cost.

"The second is time ... the average commute time now in the GTA is 80 minutes. We beat Los Angeles — congratulations. And that's going to roughly double over the next 20 to 25 years.

"So I did a little calculation. If you spend one hour a day commuting over a 40-year working life, that's one entire calendar year of your life stuck in gridlock. If it's two hours a day, it's two years. If it's three hours, it's three years, roughly speaking. You can do the math for yourself. It's simple math. I've got to ask myself, who would want to waste that amount of time of a precious life stuck in a traffic jam, or going nowhere?"

"The problem is we don't yet offer a realistic alternative to people," says Jeff Lehman, the mayor of Barrie. "I don't actually have any illusions about fundamentally changing the pattern of travel. We are a car-based society and it's a city that has a car-based urban form. And we, the collective we, have done a miserable job of adjusting our public transit system to serve the new land use pattern of employment."

What Lehman is referring to is the movement not just of people, but of jobs to the suburbs over the past 20 years, particularly office jobs.

That, combined with immigration and the lower cost of housing compared to downtown areas, has resulted in explosive growth in Canada's suburbs.

In that time, little public transit has been built. Almost none was created to get people from suburban houses to suburban jobs.

"In the last 20 years it's absolutely pathetic, the amount of transit that's been built in this city and in this region," says Paul Bedford, who's on the board of Metrolinx, the Ontario government agency in charge of transit planning.

So roads and highways are jammed, and there's no quick fix.

"The level of congestion and auto traffic in those areas is going to get way worse before it gets better," according to Michael Roschlau, the head of the Canadian Urban Transit Association. "In the short term, the next five or 10 years, there's going to be an increasing number of cars on that limited lane capacity in suburban areas before we can start making the quantum leap."

When he says quantum leap, Roschlau is referring to the move by large numbers of commuters to public transit. Even if governments decided to start building huge integrated public transit networks tomorrow, and even if they had all the money necessary to fund them — big ifs — they would take decades to build.

The Greater Toronto Area and Greater Vancouver both have such plans in the works.

congestion-barrie-300

Mapleview Drive in Barrie, Ont., where this picture was taken, intersects with the 400 highway and is a notoriously congested artery. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

The Toronto regions, called the Big Move, would eventually make it possible for a person to commute from suburb to suburb or to downtown Toronto by rail or bus, paying a single fare and getting to their destination about as fast as if they had driven. Vancouver's plan, Transport 2040, has similar goals.

This is what you might call the "big fix" to suburban traffic congestion. However, the cost of all this is daunting.

The Big Move has an estimated price tag of $50 billion over the next 25 years or so, $80 billion if operating and maintenance costs are included. In Vancouver, the cost would be far less, but it's still in the billions.

The cost of congestion in Canada is already estimated in the billions of dollars per year.

It's easy for governments and voters to say no to such a huge public expenditure, which would almost certainly come with some combination of road tolls, municipal sales taxes and parking levies. But the argument now being put forward is that we can't afford to say no.

The Greater Toronto region is expecting another 2.5 million people over the next 20 years, for example.

"How the hell does it work every day?" says Bedford. "The only way a 10-million-person region works successfully is through a massive public transit network, which we don't have right now."

Vancouver's situation is similar. The region is expecting another million people by 2040.

"If you don't do anything about that, with that growth, the danger is you will go backwards in terms of GDP and the economy," says George Hazel, an expert on cities who is hired by municipalities around the world to give them advice on how to build better transportation networks. He did a study for Siemens that ranks global cities on how at-risk they are of economic decline.

"Some of the Canadian cities are in there, including Toronto. Dubai is there as well. Dubai is a city that tried to work mobility just on the private car. What are they doing? They're retrofitting transit, because they found out it didn't work."

The cost of congestion in Canada is already estimated in the billions of dollars per year. If nothing is done to build more public transit, the predictions get even darker.

Eric Miller, head of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto, says people will stop moving to the region altogether.

"It's not a happy future," says Miller. "It literally is almost a life-and-death thing for the city. Transportation is so fundamental that we will not continue to prosper unless our transportation system is significantly improved. Eventually, people will stop coming here to live. Jobs will move away because it simply will not be an attractive enough place."

For now, the millions of people who do live in Canada's suburbs have no escape from the congestion. Even if the promised integrated regional transit networks become a reality, it will take decades to build them. The big fix is a long way off.