TORONTO -- Toronto streets seem more jammed than they have any time since the pandemic began, and a traffic systems expert at the University of Toronto says it may be public health advice that could do more to clear traffic on the roadways.

Professor Baher Abdulhai is offering the same prescription for traffic congestion that we have heard from his colleagues in public health pushing to fight the spread of COVID-19: get vaccinated.

“One obvious answer is, vaccination, vaccination, vaccination. Take the virus out of the equation and go back to normal life,” said Abdulhai, the director of Toronto’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre.

The reason, Abdulhai says, is that while people believe COVID-19 remains a threat, they are less likely to go into close quarters with strangers, which means they are less likely to take public transit.

That means the people who might be occupying a small space on a bus or a train may be choosing to use vehicles that occupy a much larger space on the roads, he said.

“If people continue to avoid transit for obvious reasons, the other main option is driving,” he said. “No transportation planner ever factored in the possibility of attracting a deadly virus.” 

“This is a showstopper that became a game changer. It’s going to take a bit of time for the risk to disappear, for people to realize that and start trusting taking public transit again,” he said.

Toronto Transportation Commission statistics show that ridership is down to about 45 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. 

Driving, however, is only down to about 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to city statistics.

That means more slowdowns on roads that had been much more empty since March 2020. 

“Today took me twice as long as it usually would to get from downtown to Scarborough,” said Emily Mills. “Downtown was lots of construction. Queen Street was a huge mess.”

A City of Toronto spokesperson said the city had granted more rush hour construction exemptions during the pandemic, but that it was rolling those back as traffic increased.

The city has brought together a congestion management team to anticipate increased traffic congestion, implementing programs including new priority bus routes in Scarborough that make local buses faster, a more connected city-wide bike network, and smart signals that will be deployed at 17 intersections starting in November.

The OPP said it’s preparing for some of the heaviest traffic volumes of the year on Thanksgiving weekend. 

Sgt. Kerry Schmidt said the force had responded to more than 39,400 motor vehicle collisions so far this year, 195 were fatal and 5,100 resulted in injuries.

The expected higher traffic volumes had Schmidt reiterating safety messages.

“With increasing traffic we are getting congestion and people need to pay attention,” Schmidt said.