Toronto's long commute times have become a constant refrain dominating the public discourse. Many believe that the commute times are excessive. However, if the laws of physics and common sense were to prevail, Toronto's 33-minute one-way commutes make perfect sense.
Commuting and congestion in Toronto have long been a source of concern and debate. As early as in July 1948, The Globe and Mail published stories of gridlocked downtown Toronto, calling it the "suffering acres." The recent discourse, however, is prejudiced against Toronto's average commute times, which are the highest in Canada. Remedial measures to shorten Toronto's long commutes are being proposed, whereas commuters (mostly drivers) and transport planners are being criticized for creating rather than solving the problem.
The simple fact that commute times increase with the size of the underlying labour force has been ignored altogether in the ongoing debate. Also overlooked is the fact Toronto's long average commute times are partially due to the slower commutes of many public transit riders. In fact, the size of the labour force, transit ridership, and the presence of satellite commuter towns (e.g., Oshawa) explain Toronto's long commute times. The focus should not necessarily be on reducing commute times, but instead on improving the quality of commutes and the reliability of their duration.
Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) is the largest urban centre in Canada, with over 3.4-million workers comprising its labour force. These workers and their jobs cannot be contained in a smaller space, such as London, Ontario, which boasts an average commute time of 21 minutes for a small labour force of 268,000 workers. Whereas Toronto's labour force is 13 times larger, its average commute time is only 1.6 times greater than that of London. In fact, Toronto's labour force is 54 per cent larger than that of Montreal, Canada's second largest employment hub. Still, the commute times in Toronto are merely 10 per cent larger than that of Montreal.
Toronto's success with public transit is another reason for its large commute times. Almost one in four work trips in Toronto CMA is made by public transit. The 2011 National Household Survey revealed that trips made by public transit were 81 per cent longer than those by private car. This means that one in four trips in Toronto is made using a slower mode of travel. Given our stated planning priority to move more commuters off cars and on to public transit, average commute times are likely to increase, and not decrease.
But how bad is it to have an average commute time of 33 minutes? Is Toronto's average commute time anomalously larger than that of other comparable metropolitan areas in Canada? The average commute time in Montreal of 30 minutes and that in Vancouver of 28 minutes, with significantly smaller respective labour forces, suggest that Toronto's commute time is certainly not anomalous or an outlier.
In fact, simple statistical techniques applied to the commute time data for the 33 large CMAs in Canada revealed that the size of the labour force, the presence of satellite towns in the catchment of the large urban centres, and the public transit share explained 85 per cent of the variance in commuting times across Canada. The analysis revealed that average commute times increased by a minute for every 2.7 per cent increase in public transit ridership, after we controlled for the size of the labour force and the presence of satellite towns.
Joel Garreau, in his seminal text, Edge City, observed that throughout human history, and irrespective of transport technology, the longest desirable commute has been no more than 45 minutes. Toronto, or any other city in Canada, has not reached that critical threshold to become a historical anomaly. The fact that average commute times have approached 30 minutes in large urban centres in Canada is merely an artifact of the size of labour markets.
The debate in Canada should focus not on reducing commute times in large urban centers, which will be akin to setting an impossible goal. Instead, the focus should be on improving the quality of commutes, and more importantly, on making commute times more predictable. It is not the duration of commutes that stresses commuters more, but rather the unpredictability of their commute quality and duration.
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