Commuting in Toronto? It’s time to change directions

Ryan Brain, Deloitte

Like the majority of people who live and work in the Greater Toronto Area, I drive almost every day. I try to make the most of my 55-km trek in from Burlington every morning, and do my best to time my commute (both to and from work) to miss traffic. But this is getting harder and harder. In fact, it is for most commuters, according to our new research, reported in Changing directions: Rethinking working and commuting in the GTA. What we found is that while commuters have multiple options—taking the transit, walking, or even cycling into the downtown core—no matter where we live, the vast majority of us prefer our cars.

And that’s the key takeaway in the report: Above all else, the one thing we all tend to value the most is our time. And, when we can, we’ll pay a premium to save it.

Unfortunately, public transportation infrastructure in the region simply falls short. In fact, I believe the “debate” about commuting in the GTA has been much too focused on infrastructure—what to build, where to build it, how to fund it—and arguably the single most important factor has been routinely overlooked:

Commuters themselves.

As we spent time talking with people about their experiences and poring over the available data, some behavioural patterns emerged that allowed us to organize the millions of GTA commuters into discrete categories, or archetypes. In doing so, we believe, we could begin to get to the heart of this matter and, ideally, change the conversation.

There’s the “Bustling ‘Burbanite,” a working parent who juggles business and family commitments, and who therefore drives to accommodate the various stops and starts on their daily back-and-forth between home, the daycare, school recitals, the dry cleaner, and so on.

There’s the “Environmental Evangelist,” who lives downtown and bikes to work in order to limit their environmental footprint, despite the potential for accidents and other mishaps with all those drivers.

There’s the “Cost-Conscious Commuter,” who suffers a long trip both ways not necessarily because of distance as much as frequent bus stops and wait times, but for whom the drastically reduced financial expense ends up being worth the high cost in time.

There’s the “Single-Line Subway Rider,” who happily trades the gridlock for the crowded and occasionally uncivilized crush of people on the subway, and for whom the only real problem is the relative lack of information surrounding inevitable delays.

And finally there’s the “Multi-Tasking Motorist,” who uses their car as an extension of their office. It’s the most expensive option by far, but it’s still the best option for them.

Of course, taking the measure of the vast and varied commuter experiences doesn’t solve our shared transportation problem, but I believe it’s an important step forward. There remains plenty that all of us—not just the municipal government and transportation agencies but also government at all levels, employers, commuters, and the general public—can do to alleviate some of the stress and strain of the daily grind, and in the report we look to a number of cities around the world who are having success reorienting their transportation systems to the needs of the people using them, rather than remaining preoccupied with the infrastructure itself. The report also looks at how the nature of work is changing, which is impacting all of us once we get through our grinding commute. We all have a stake in this, and we all need to use our voices to effect change.

That’s why I invite you to read the report in full and think not just about what kind of commuter you are but also the kinds of things that would make your commute more effective and productive.


The comment made at the beginning of this blog post about the majority of people commuting into the downtown core by car is actually false. The majority of commuters traveling to the downtown core do so by transit, upwards of 70%. Car commuters are the majority to suburban job locations, but not to the downtown core.

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