The pandemic did not make a lasting impact on the number of Canadians who commute by car, according to new census data, even as transit use continues to lag at levels not seen in a quarter-century.
The figures, released Wednesday as part of the 2021 census, show that increased numbers of front-line workers commuted by car during the pandemic. Many other employees – those who could work from home – did so. Those who did drive benefited from the emptier roads, with a larger percentage reporting commutes of less than half an hour.
Statistics Canada said that the drops in car commuters were highest in Ontario, where the number slumped about 20 per cent, and in Alberta, where it slid by close to 14 per cent.
Car commuters in Toronto saved the most time among the country’s cities, with the average trip down 2.7 minutes. The next largest declines were in Hamilton and Oshawa, down 2.2 minutes each, and St. John’s and Ottawa-Gatineau, where average car commutes dropped by 2.1. minutes.
The agency says that the number of daily commuters fell by 2.8 million during the pandemic, comparing 2021 with the previous census in 2016. But by May of 2022, as the pandemic receded and companies began to encourage their employees to return to the office, the number of people driving to work had rebounded.
“Car commuting levels … exceeded May, 2016, levels in every province except Quebec,” Josée Bégin, Statistics Canada director general of labour market, education and socioeconomic well-being, told a briefing.
Overall, the 2021 census showed that the number of car commuters – which the agency defines as drivers or passengers who go to work in a car, truck or van – was 12.8 million a day, about the same as in 2016, Statistics Canada said.
But the agency noted that such a rebound was absent among transit riders. About two million Canadians a day commuted routinely by transit before COVID-19 hit, a figure that sagged to 1.2 million during the pandemic.
The overall number of regular transit commuters has not been so low since 1996, wiping out a quarter-century of ridership gains.
In many Canadian cities, the result has been a split between those who can choose to avoid transit and those who have no other viable options. Statistics Canada notes that transit remains particularly important for women, immigrant populations and racialized people.
Ms. Bégin said that immigrants made up nearly half of transit ridership recorded in the latest census, even though this group was barely more than a quarter of the population.
The continuing slump in public-transit use has also been a headache for cities. People opting to drive instead of taking transit have contributed to traffic congestion, and the reduced number of riders has slashed revenues and left gaping holes in municipal balance sheets.
Toronto, which in normal times has the most heavily used transit system in the country, has had to go repeatedly to higher levels of government for funding to patch over transit budget shortfalls.
The census also found that pandemic-spurred efforts in some cities to create safer and more pleasant bicycling and walking routes were not enough to stop reductions in the number of people getting to work this way.
Statistics Canada found that the number of people who commuted by active transportation – walking or cycling – fell by 26.2 per cent from 2016 to 2021. The agency attributes that to job losses in sectors whose employees rely disproportionately on these methods of commuting.
“In 2016, nearly one-third (32.0%) of all Canadians who mainly commuted by foot or bicycle worked in accommodation and food services and retail trade,” the agency said in a statement that accompanied the census data release.
“This decline in walking and biking to work reflects, in part, fewer jobs in accommodation and food services and retail trade in 2021.”