A new staff report is recommending that the city spend tens of millions of dollars on smart traffic signals and other technology in response to a “drastic shift” in commuting patterns since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, which will go before the infrastructure and environment committee next week, would see the city invest $38.8 million in five different congestion management initiatives over the next five years.

The bulk of the money, about $24 million, would go towards the cost of installing 500 new smart traffic signals that can be automatically re-timed to respond to actual traffic conditions.

The plan also calls for the installation of 100 more transit signal priority systems, which work by extending green lights when they detect a bus or streetcar is approaching the intersection. About 400 of those systems are already in operation in the city.

It also calls for 100 new “intelligent intersections” with improved data collection, similar to the ones already installed along the King Street Transit Priority Corridor.

“Many of our current road systems are timed and programmed using decades of vehicle, pedestrian and cycling data that may no longer be present in reality,” Infrastructure and Environment Committee Chair James Pasternak said during a press conference at city hall on Thursday morning. “This report and these actions provide an opportunity to invest in improvements and technologies that will make our transportations systems more adaptable.”

Car volume downtown dropped by 40 per cent in April

The staff report reveals that daily car volume in the downtown core dropped by 40 per cent in April as the city faced the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pedestrian volumes in the downtown core were also down a staggering 80 per cent.

Since then, traffic volumes have gradually increased but the report says that in September motor vehicle traffic at select downtown intersections was still down 15 to 40 per cent from September, 2019 and pedestrian volumes were down an average of 60 per cent.

The report, however, reveals that cyclist volumes are only down 10 to 30 per cent on downtown roads, likely due to a “significant increases in weekend travel.”

It says that overall there has also been “drastic shifts in time-of-day patterns, including a substantial reduction in the traditional morning peak.” And it warns that given the recent rise inCOVID-19 cases, “it is not possible to reasonably predict traffic travel times and volumes.”

“It is not so much the volume of traffic that concerns us; it is the disruptive nature of the traffic patterns,” Toronto’s Director of Traffic Management Roger Browne said during Thursday’s press conference. “The traffic patterns are no longer as consistent as they were. We no longer see the sort of a.m. or p.m. peak period, it is sporadic throughout the city. That is the reason that these particular programs will be the most helpful in terms of really helping the city through the pandemic period and as the city moves through a period of recovery as well.”

The staff report says that 34 of the new smart traffic signals will be installed over the next two years with 155 to be installed in 2023, 2024 and 2025.

The city previously installed smart traffic signals at 22 intersections as part of a pilot project that was conducted in 2018 and 2019.