06/26/2013 08:31 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Driving alone Canada's most popular means of getting to work: Statcan survey

TORONTO - By the time she gets home every weeknight, Raquel Capovilla Lee has spent half as much time travelling to and from her office in downtown Toronto as she has at her desk.

The journey between her Hamilton home and Starcom MediaVest Group, where she works as a digital marketing assistant, takes about two hours and three different modes of transportation — eating into her personal and family time, to say nothing of her energy.

Moving to Hamilton, an hour's drive west of Toronto, made financial sense for Capovilla Lee, 28, and her husband. The couple wanted to buy a house, but prices in the big city were beyond their reach at the time, she said.

The job hunt in her new hometown proved difficult, however, so eight months ago, Capovilla Lee accepted a position roughly 70 kilometres away.

"I'm from Brazil, I recently moved to Canada and it was really difficult to get a job in my career ... I took the first opportunity," she said.

"For now, I'm OK with that because it's just the two of us and I can do stuff during the commute, but in the future I don't want to do that anymore. I would probably move to Toronto or try to find a job (in Hamilton)."

Some 15.4 million Canadians endure a daily commute to and from work, most of them behind the wheel, Statistics Canada said Wednesday in the latest batch of numbers from the 2011 National Household Survey, the replacement for the cancelled long-form census.

Four out of five commuters took a private vehicle, most of them driving themselves, the survey found. Twelve per cent of commuters took public transit, up from 11 per cent in 2006.

The disproportionate popularity of driving in the age of climate change and environmental stewardship may boil down to a single factor: time. Private-vehicle commuters spent an average of 23.7 minutes getting to work, nearly half the 40.4 minutes it took bus riders.

Subway users spent an average of 44.6 minutes on their morning commute, while light-rail, streetcar and commuter-train users took an average of 52.5 minutes.

"Minutes add up to hours very quickly," said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a national research organization on family-related issues.

When simply making it to work and back becomes an drawn-out ordeal, it forces people to give up sleep, exercise and other things that ensure a certain quality of life, she said.

Of growing concern among experts is the prevalence of what's known as "extended commuting," which ranges from routines like Capovilla Lee's to flying across provincial borders for weeks-long stints in the oilpatch.

Wednesday's data didn't delve into whether workers were crossing provincial boundaries, but the phenomenon of long-distance commuting has been well-documented in the U.S., where so-called "super-commuters" — largely young, middle-class workers — account for an increasingly large share of the labour force, according to a 2012 study out of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation.

"The changing structure of the workplace, advances in telecommunications and the global pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter a new force of transportation," the study reads.

There, the U.S. housing crisis is a likely motivator as "super-commuters are well-positioned to take advantage of higher salaries in one region and lower housing costs in another," it says.

Experts say real estate plays a role in Canada as well, but it's unclear exactly how much, since there has been little data on labour mobility.

A new national research project, dubbed the On The Move Partnership, aims to examine the roots and ramifications of extended commuting over the next seven years.

Though "particularly pervasive" in resource-dependent regions, long-haul commuting is becoming a "big issue" in large urban centres as well, the project's director, Barbara Neis, said in launching the study this winter.

"In places like southern Ontario — where we've had de-industrialization — and Montreal, we have a lot of people who are joining the extended commute industry ... out of the province and into other regions in order to find work," she told a forum at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

"Basically we've got, to some degree in this country, a spatial mismatch between where people are living, the skills that they have and where the work is happening. Sometimes people solve that by moving, but a lot of people are solving it — at least in the short term — by commuting."

While some fields, such as politics and sales, have typically involved a lot of travel, lengthy commutes are now par for the course in practically every profession, Spinks said.

"It's not just white-collar, blue-collar, public sector, it now crosses multiple industries, all sectors," she said.

That, combined with the shift away from traditional business hours, has made it harder to co-ordinate carpools, among other things, said Spinks, who is also involved in the On The Move project.

Surprisingly, a relatively tiny fraction of Canadian commuters reported travelling to and from work in the passenger seat. Of the people who travelled by vehicle, 17 per cent said they carpooled, while 83 per cent reported driving alone.

"These aren't just personal issues, employment issues, family issues — they're also community issues, the commute and the traffic and transportation," Spinks said.