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2016 Census shows a shift towards sustainable mobility

Jeff Mackey, CUTA

The Canadian Census only happens once every five years, but its influence on policymaking is perennial. From macroeconomic issues down to local zoning decisions, the socio-economic information about Canadians contained in the Census is used to help improve the lives of Canadians by providing statistics with which to base policy.

Transit is no exception to this. On November 29, 2017 the final section of results of the 2016 Census were released to Canadians. This release included the “Journey to Work” chapter, which is tremendously useful when trying to understand the commutes of Canadians. The biggest take-away from this Census was a clear shift among Canadians towards sustainable mobility options, like transit, walking and cycling.

Of the 15.9 million Canadians that commuted to work each day 12% used transit, 7% walked or used a bicycle and 6% rode in a car as a passenger (carpooling). Notably, 74% of Canadians drove themselves to and from work, making private occupancy vehicles still the most common form of commuting.

Still, there is a lot here for sustainable mobility advocates to get excited about. While the modal share of transit has increased 2.4% in the last 20 years, there has been a 59.5% increase in transit riders (1,233,870 riders in the 1996 census, 1,968,215 in the 2016 census). In this time, we have also seen cycling’s modal share increase from 1.2%, or 137,435 cyclists, in 1996 to 1.6%, or 222,130 cyclists, in 2016—over a 61% increase in cycling commuters.

In the same period of time the number of commuters using a car increased only 28.2%. 

This has a lot to do with the urbanization of Canada’s population.

“In 1996, 8.6 million or 70.5% of employed Canadians who commuted to work were living in a census metropolitan area. By 2016, this proportion had increased to 73.5% or 11.7 million,” states Statistics Canada’s Key Findings Report.

Of course, the Census tells us more than just the modal share. The 2016 Census also found that the average commuting duration for the employed labour force with a usual place of work or no fixed workplace address increased 3.6%, from 25.4 minutes in 2011, to 26.2 minutes in 2016. It also found that over the last year commutes between 9 a.m. and noon have increased by 9.2%, while commutes between noon and 5 a.m. have increased 11%. We also saw a 10.3% increase in the number of people working from home.

While this information is incredibly useful for transit systems (it can be broken down to a municipal level for local insights), there are flaws in the data collection that should be addressed. Chiefly, the Journey to Work survey covers only commutes to and from work, not the mode of transport used for a wide variety of other journeys—such as trips to the grocery store, to appointments or social gatherings.

Secondly, this survey does not provide the option of listing intermodal trips. For example, if a person drives to a Park and Ride, rides a train downtown, then takes a 15-minute walk to their office, how should they respond when asked how they commute to work? Seasonal commuting is another issue, for people who may commute using active transportation in the warmer months but another mode when it’s cold or raining.

The limitations of the Census flatten responses to a point where we do not truly understand the mobility of Canadians through this survey alone. Still, the Journey to Work survey is an important tool to help transit systems understand their riders better and to help them make evidence-based decisions in their communities.

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