Here's what regional and local commuting looks like

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Here’s what regional and local commuting looks like

An update to last week's transit column about local and regional commuting distances and the importance of local transit.

Photo, from 2010, by Karen Maraj in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Last week, I drew on recent census data to demonstrate how local most work commutes are in the GTHA. I also pointed out that both inside and outside Toronto (but especially outside), local public transit is inadequate. Municipalities need more investment in local transit so that commuters have a good alternative to driving.

A number of issues have been raised in response to that column in discussions on social media, and I am going to try to address some of them here.

One thing people were interested was the distances involved. What did “local” actually mean in terms of kilometres? And some people, who have very long commutes, were surprised to hear that local commuting was more common.

So I dug into more census tables and pulled out commute-to-work distance data to calculate the share of commuters travelling long and short distances for the same cities I had examined in the earlier column: the City of Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Hamilton, Burlington, Pickering, Oshawa, Kitchener, and Waterloo.

Distance is a tricky thing here, as these cities are different sizes and have different road and transit networks that make commutes more or less efficient. And as in the last column, this census data is only for journeys to a regular place of work, not all travellers. With that in mind, some patterns nevertheless emerge.

In all but one of these cities, 60 per cent or more of commuters have journeys of less than 15 kilometres. The highest numbers are in Toronto and Waterloo, where over 80 per cent of commuters travel less than 15 kilometres. Mississauga is next with 68 per cent, then Hamilton with 66 per cent, and Brampton with 64 per cent.

Shorter commuting distances are a sign of good land-use planning. Even with rapid and efficient modes of transportation, people should not have to travel huge distances to meet basic needs, such as employment.

In Toronto, Waterloo, Hamilton, and Oshawa, the news is even better: a majority in each of these cities commutes under 10 kilometres. Waterloo has the best score here, with 74 per cent of commutes under 10 kilometres, and 27 per cent under only three kilometres.

The exception in this group is Pickering, where only 39.6 per cent of commuters travel under 15 kilometres to get to work.

In the GTHA, plus Kitchener and Waterloo, super-long commutes are not typical. In most of these cities, 10 per cent or less of commuters travel that far. Toronto residents are the least likely to venture so far for work: less than 4 per cent of commuters travel over 30 kilometres.

The people who were most surprised to hear how local commuting is for most of their neighbours most likely live in Oshawa, Pickering, Burlington, or Hamilton. In these cities, there is a significant outlier group with journeys of over 30 kilometres.

And they are outliers: the number of people in each distance group in every city except Pickering peaks at the 10 to 14.9 kilometres category and then falls. In Hamilton, Oshawa, and Burlington, it suddenly jumps up in the over 30 kilometres category. These commuters are still a minority and not typical for their hometowns, but they exist in significant numbers, ranging from 16 per cent of Hamilton commuters to 27 per cent in Oshawa.

There are lots of factors contributing to these numbers. One thing these four cities have in common is that they are all on the Lakeshore GO lines. When the first line opened in 1967, it ran rush-hour service from Hamilton to Pickering. GO bus service from Pickering to Oshawa became GO train service in 1995. This may have helped establish some commuting habits that persist today, even as local employment opportunities also developed.

A bigger question overarching all this is: What do “local” and “regional” even mean when it comes to transit? That is a discussion worth digging into, especially as many of our current systems and proposed projects conflate them. As I’ve written previously, the TTC provides both local and regional service, but it’s mostly designed for local travel. The city of Toronto itself is so large, it’s fair to think about a commute from Scarborough to Etobicoke, which could easily stretch over 30 kilometres, as “regional.”

Regional transit works well when it has few stops and can take advantage of higher speeds to cover longer distances in the least time. Adding extra stops (I’m looking at you, SmartTrack) to provide more local service on regional lines defeats the original purpose.

When we look at the GTHA as a region, there are at two fundamental ways we can see it: as an interconnected network of separate places or as one big place, like an extra-large city. I would argue that the more appropriate planning perspective is to see it as a network. That network will thrive as a whole if each place within it also thrives independently.

People should not have to journey far to go to work, attend school, get their groceries, find daycare, or socialize in their community. It is clear from the commute-to-work data that the majority of residents in the GTHA have local commutes but that travel is poorly supported by local transit. Consequently, the vast majority of them drive.

When land-use planning puts people at great distance from their basic needs, then we are treating the region as one big city, overcentralizing its resources, and separating those resources too much from residential areas. In a way, we define what “local” means when we determine how far people will have to travel for their daily needs.

Where there are occasional and extraordinary opportunities in neighbouring places, regional transit ought to be in place to access those. But even strong regional transit isn’t enough if you want people to have a good alternative to driving. They need to travel that last mile to their destination. In other words, regional exchanges need to be supported and complemented by local modes of travel.

If we look at the way people already live in this region, their mobility is local. In a region spanning 130 kilometres, from Oshawa to Hamilton, a journey of less than 15 kilometres (e.g. the length of the Don Valley Parkway from the 401 to the Gardiner) is more than a good walk but still pretty “local.” And as noted in the previous column, the residents of the GTHA are not all commuting to Toronto. Most workers in most cities are commuting within their city of residence. This is a good thing.

We need to do more to support this local mobility with improved local transit. Mobility is the lifeblood of a city and its economy. Reliable, predictable funding for local-transit operating budgets is crucial for both local and regional travel. The province used to do much more to invest in operating costs, but now it is largely left to municipal governments and, overwhelmingly, the fare box. It’s well past time for the provincial government to get back in that game.


This is my last column for 2017. Thanks to everyone for the tips, suggestions, comments, and discussion this year. May all your holiday travels, near and far, bring you safely to friends and family.

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