Transit may be the better way, but it is certainly not the faster one. The latest data from Statistics Canada has revealed the most avoided truth about commuting: Transit commutes are 81-per-cent longer than those by car.
Earlier this week, Statistics Canada released data on commuting from the 2011 National Household Survey, which revealed that from Vancouver to St. John's, transit commuters spent far more time travelling to and from work than those who commuted by cars. Despite the alarms about gridlock and congestion, fewer than 9 per cent of commuters in Canada travelled for more than an hour to work.
The commute to work data challenges the notion that building more public transit will save travel time by shifting commuters from cars to public transit. How is it possible that transferring commuters from a faster mode of travel to a slower one will shorten travel times? Simple arithmetic and common sense suggests that system-wide travel times will instead be longer when more people commute by the slower mode, i.e., public transit.
Consider the example of Vancouver and Montreal, where travel to work by car takes on average 26.5 minutes. At the same time, commuting by public transit takes on average 42 minutes. Shifting a few hundred thousand commuters from a faster mode to a slower one is certainly going to increase the city-wide average travel times. Why then should we build more public transit and not more roads?
Two other popular urban myths about commuting can be scrutinized with the new data. The first myth suggests that unlike those who live in the urban core, suburban households experience excessive commute times. The neighbourhood level data for large cities, such as Toronto, however, reveals that suburban commuters experience similar, if not shorter, commute times to those experienced by centrally living households with similar demographic characteristics, i.e., presence of young children in the household.
The second myth claims that, if given an opportunity, commuters would shift from car to public transit – this defies logic. Given that those who commute by car have, on average, significantly shorter commutes than those who commute by public transit, why would one opt for a mode of travel with longer travel times? We believe that being (somewhat) rational decision-makers, humans opt for choices that deliver the maximum benefit, which for commuting to work is offered by the private automobile.
It is more probable that building more roads and introducing congestion pricing on highways will make commutes even shorter by car. The case for building more transit therefore cannot be made on the pretext of shorter commutes. Instead, the case for public transit should be made for long-term environmental sustainability and for reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. The transport sector in Canada continues to be a major source of energy consumption, urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Transit-based commutes, on a per capita basis, consume significantly less energy and generate fewer emissions than those by cars.
Furthermore, public transit continues to be a major enabler of economic vibrancy of downtown employment hubs in large urban centres. Millions of workers arrive at work by transit, which eliminates the need for building new roads, parking lots and other infrastructure for which space is no longer available.
Significant investments are needed in Canada to make public transit more efficient, reliable and comfortable. For instance, we need to invest in transit priority lanes for surface transit, and better signalling and track equipment for rail-based transit. Such investments will reduce travel times by public transit, making it a more attractive option to those who commute by faster-moving cars.
But let's not delude ourselves that transit will produce commuting times that are competitive with those offered by cars, especially for suburban commuters. Investments in extending transit coverage to suburbs, where commuters enjoy significantly shorter commutes by car, will be wasting taxpayers' money.
Murtaza Haider is associate dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.