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Gridlock: How politicians are wasting your commuting time

With election campaigns in full swing now in many cities across the country, most prominently in Toronto and Vancouver, one of the biggest issues of work-life balance will get an airing, although obliquely: commuting.

In surveying and talking to folks in recent years about their struggles allocating time, it has become clear to me this is a huge issue, with nowhere near the attention and comprehensive approach it deserves. Far too much time is lost by Canadians to commutes.

Municipal politicians, of course, will talk of transit. There will be nods to the problem of traffic congestion. But the talk always seems bloodless, as if abstracted from the daily pain of people caught in gridlock or waiting interminably for buses that don't connect properly with other buses – and even that view is removed from the impact on our work-life balance.

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I had a boss who observed that people consider the time they spend commuting as part of work time – his point being they left early or arrived late, stealing it, in effect, from the company. Whether that's true or not – at that office, as he knew, most people worked a lot of unpaid overtime – certainly in today's work-life divide, commuting time is work time, snatched from family and personal pursuits. Sure, some people can commute with other members of their family or friends, or read books on transit, but for the most part, it's time lost or wasted.

"The politicians' view of the issue is siloed," said Kevin Montgomery, one of two commuters I interviewed in the past to whom I returned for their thoughts on how the issue needed to play out in the elections.

"They focus on traffic and gridlock. They talk about it as individual pieces, rather than as a whole. Focusing on it as commuting would bring it together as a broader issue. But it doesn't seem that municipalities in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] are moving ahead on that score. It feels like the context of commuting is always cars, rather than better systems to move people where they are going."

Mr. Montgomery has an interesting – and long, complicated – commute from Brampton, Ont., to Dundas Street and University Avenue in downtown Toronto. He cycles to the Brampton GO station, folds up his bike, boards the commuter train and disembarks at Bloor Street, where he hops back on his bike for the final few miles. Going home, it's the reverse.

At the same time, he acknowledges that the issue doesn't end with people like him getting to work. It relates to how people carry out their familial activities in non-work hours. And Eddie Ho, a chartered public accountant who works for one of the big four accounting firms in downtown Toronto and lives in a condo a few minutes from work, adds another two dimensions.

He experiences frustration going to visit clients. The stream of GO trains flooding downtown Toronto every morning may be doing a fine service, but what about people like him going in the opposite direction to clients in Mississauga or Markham, Ont., or out to Pearson International Airport? And sometimes he needs to move about during the day, between offices, as do many consultants, salespeople, and service providers, which would be part of what he calls non-routine commuting.

So don't think about just the morning and evening commutes – think about around-the-clock people movement. To him, the issue is about accessibility to jobs, an economic issue. And he's not hopeful when he peers out his condo window and sees the perpetual traffic on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway: "I look at 8 a.m. when I wake up, and there's heavy traffic and I look at 11 p.m., when I'm going to bed and there's heavy traffic."

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Both commuters are hopeful that the issue, however defined, will get a thorough airing in the election. But they are also acutely aware the issue is more than any one municipality can handle. It's not just a matter of financial resources, but administrative aegis. Mr. Montgomery moves between Brampton and Toronto each working day, and many other people in major cities face a similar journey. "It's bigger than one municipality if we are encouraging interregional movement. So why aren't the mayors talking to each other about it?" he asks.

Mr. Ho is frustrated by the lack of links between Toronto Transit and provincial transit, notably the GO train. They should be seamless, but aren't. He asks why Toronto didn't postpone repairs to the Gardiner Expressway until GO Transit service had been augmented. He has colleagues who live in Mississauga but have clients in Markham, facing a horrendous trip by car or by transit.

He believes transit planners should be focused on shortening the long-distance commute, connecting people to jobs, and asking themselves, "How can someone living in the Jane-Finch area commute to the Ford Motor auto plant in Oakville, or someone living in Etobicoke commute to the IBM office in Markham – in a fast, cost-effective manner?"

Born in Johannesburg, he recently returned home for his annual visit and was impressed by the Gautrain high-speed city train service, an 80-kilometre line that runs at 160 kilometres an hour through the city and also to the airport. People can move from one end of the city to the other in 20 minutes, he said, and it takes 35 to minutes to travel from Johannesburg to Pretoria, about 70 km apart – all on trains built by a Canadian company, Bombardier. Such a system connecting across the North of the GTA – Pickering to Mississauga – and snaking into the downtown would be, he says, "fantastic" – but also sensible.

Two commuters. Two different stories. But a single hope: That this election can be the start of improving work-life balance by bringing municipalities and provincial governments together to attack the problem of commuting.

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