No, We’re Not There Yet

Many recent reports and proposals talk about the problems of long commuting trips, of the futility of attempting to move quickly around our increasingly congested city.

Back on August 24, Statistics Canada published their commuting study based on 2010 data.  The study reviews not only comparative commuting times by mode, but also the attitudes of motorists to the transit alternative.

The average commuting time for all of Canada was 26 minutes, but this rises to 30 minutes for CMAs (“Census Metropolitan Areas” which are generally larger than actual municipalities) of 1-million or more population.  Toronto and Montreal average 33 and 31 minutes, but this doesn’t tell the entire story as any Toronto commuter will tell.  27% of Toronto commutes take over 45 minutes, and 29% are caught in traffic jams.

When the data are subdivided by car and transit, the transit trips take longer, and this difference is heightened in lower density areas.  That’s no surprise because low density areas tend to have poor transit service as a direct result of lower demand.  Waiting times are an important part of transit trips when service is poor, and this is compounded by any need to change between routes that may not directly serve all travel patterns.  The average transit commute in large CMAs is 44 minutes while the average car trip is 27 minutes.  The figures are even worse for Toronto.  Missing from this is any discussion of the length of the trip or the differences caused by trip location and density of demand.

Neither transit nor car users like traffic congestion, but the presence of rapid transit  networks means that some trips are congestion-free (even though they may be subject to transit delays that were not part of this study).  The proportion of commuters who were satisfied with their commute times is understandably high where these times are short and congestion is comparatively rare.  Transit riders put up with longer commute times better than car drivers, but those with short trips tended to be less happy with transit than motorists were with their cars.  This is easy to understand when one considers that a short transit trip is more likely to have a relatively large proportion of wait time, while at least some of the longer trips (notably commuter rail) allow the commuter to relax enroute.

The vast majority of motorists view public transit unfavourably, but this statistic is not broken down by region, let alone by sub-region where variations might be seen due to the availability and quality of the public transit option.

Media reaction to this report was quite predictable with stories about how bad Toronto’s commuting times are.  Less clear is the question of what, if anything, can be done about the situation.  Indeed, the most simplistic analysis might suggest that car trips are inherently faster and “better” than transit trips based on their average length.  This would completely mask the effect of averaging together trips over a wide variety of roads and transit lines and the cost, broadly speaking, of increasing capacity for either mode.

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