Recent news reports made a great deal out of the Toronto Board of Trade’s 2010 Scorecard on Prosperity in which, among other things, we learn that Toronto is dead last in a list of cities as measured by the average commute time to work. Even Los Angeles is better!
At the risk of suggesting that the Board of Trade is misleading, and that the Toronto media are gullible fools, there is a basic flaw in the way the report’s findings are presented.
The Board’s question is
- “how long does the average person take to get to work”,
- “how far does the average person travel to work” or
- “at what speed does the average person get to work”.
This measure combines the effects of network capacity (or lack of it), of travel demand, and of the dispersal of origins and destinations across the region. People may choose to live a 90-minute drive from home because they prefer the lifestyle, because housing is cheaper or because their families are established in locations far from their present jobs. This may not have been inherently “bad” when they made their choice, but the economics of the situation are changing as commute times and costs go up.
Lazy readers tend to look at only the summary (these things are called “Executive Summaries” for a reason), but the important stuff is buried down in the heart of the report.
On page 47, we find the following:
With the spotlight shining on Toronto, it is important to illuminate the areas where the CMA lags behind its global counterparts. Most glaring is Toronto’s embarrassing last-place finish on commuting time out of 19 CMAs. Despite the fact that commuting times for US metros may be somewhat underestimated, Torontonians’ 80-minute average round-trip journey to work is enough to merit a punishing “D” grade. Although Los Angeles was expected to top the list of worst-commutes, the city fell short of this dubious honour (by more than 24 minutes compared to Toronto). Even accounting for possible under-reporting, recent surveys in the US support our findings that Los Angeles is not the commuting beast of legend. According to Forbes.com (using 2006 Community Survey data), “what serves L.A. well is that all those office parks and strip malls dotting the basin make it easy for people to commute between surrounding municipalities as opposed to a central downtown location, and that makes commutes shorter in mileage terms.”
Exactly my point — the land use of a region is key to understanding its commuting patterns. There may be jam-packed expressways, but if there are short, fast trips available to a lot of commuters, then the average value will fall.
A further problem is that the areas of study for each city vary widely. The Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) Toronto reaches to Georgina Township at Lake Simcoe. This means that a lot of very long distance (and hence long in time) commutes will be included in the overall average. A footnote cited by the paragraph above notes that US CMA definitions are based on 2000 data and may underreport the size and average commute times of US cities.
A footnote at the end of the paragraph takes us to an article in Forbes Magazine with much more detail, and with interpretive information about cities in the USA that actually makes sense using many more variables than the average time to get to work.
The Board of Trade goes on to say:
Toronto’s long commute times are particularly troubling in light of the fact that these results are averaged on the basis of all modes of travel, not just automobile trips. In the Toronto CMA, only 29 per cent of commuters leave their cars at home, well behind all European metro regions. Just under 74 per cent of Parisians, for instance, commute by transit, walking or cycling (in first-place Hong Kong, the comparable figure is just under 90 per cent).
Toronto’s commuting problems give rise to serious congestion issues, as noted by a landmark study recently prepared by the OECD. In the 2010 “Territorial Review of Toronto, Canada,” the OECD notes: “High car-usage rates have led to traffic congestion, with annual costs for commuters in 2006 estimated at around $2.74 billion (US$) per year and the annual economic costs at $2.24 billion (US$) for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.”
Note the high non-auto modal splits in cities that are often cited as models. These are not cities full of expressways, and they have land use patterns vastly different from the GTA.
Toronto’s high value is a direct result of development policies that encouraged sprawl by widespread highway construction. In the short-to-medium term, road capacity grew faster than demand, and all was well. However, the GTA now has far more residents, and its jobs are spread over a wide region. This is not the sort of thing we can fix overnight with a few subway lines or busways.
Metrolinx’ The Big Move was supposed to address this problem, but even they, with extremely optimistic ridership projections for a transit network, could only divert about half of the projected growth in travel by 2031 from roads to transit. The lion’s share of this diversion is for trips bound to major centres within the 416, and commuters between the outer GTA municipalities will not benefit nearly as much from the new network as those travelling to and from inner areas. This is not a recipe to instill a love of new car/road-oriented revenue tools in the 905.
Forbes ranks the 10 best and 10 worst cities for commuting, and their results are vastly different from the Board of Trade rankings.
For the worst cities, Forbes lists San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas in spots 10, 9 and 5 respectively. These are in positions 7, 6 and 2 (out of 19) in the Board of Trade list. Dallas is second only to Barcelona, according to the Board of Trade’s numbers.
For the best cities, the top of Forbes list, pride of place, the gold star goes to Buffalo.
Of cities with over 500,000 commuters, fewer people spend an hour or more getting to work in Buffalo than anywhere else in the country.
I am sure we all want to move to Buffalo.
My point here is that it’s easy to concoct a metric, but you need to understand how it is constructed, what it actually measures, and whether the numbers coming out of the machinery are directly comparable.
Without question, the GTA has a lot of very long commutes thanks to the way it developed. This is not a Toronto problem, it is a GTA problem. It is the result of decades of paying lip service to planning principles and the need for a good transit system to keep pace with, no, to lead development and shape it around transit rather than auto travel.
Greater Toronto is not a “transit city” and will have to work very hard to earn such a title. Meanwhile, reports about congestion must try to understand causes, not just raw numbers. Politicians who quail at the thought of multi-billion dollar programs, who defer rather than lead, ignore what is happening around them. We talk about concentrating development, of limiting growth into virgin territory, but we don’t want to spend what is necessary to focus that growth with good public transit.
That’s the message the Board of Trade should have shouted to the media, but it’s not the message anyone, at least the crew at Queen’s Park, wants to hear.