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Study: Commuting within Canada's largest cities

Released: 2019-05-29

Commuting patterns in large metropolitan areas, and the ways in which Canadians are getting to work in those areas, have changed considerably over the past two decades, according to a new study.

These changes have occurred against a backdrop of changes in Canada's infrastructure system, and alongside the rising number of jobs that have been created away from the city centre of large metropolitan areas.

Using data from the 1996 and 2016 Censuses of Population, the study "Results from the 2016 Census: Commuting within Canada's largest cities," released today in Insights on Canadian Society, examines the commuting patterns in Canada's eight largest census metropolitan areas (CMAs): Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa–Gatineau, Edmonton, Québec and Winnipeg.

The study finds that among Canadians who are commuting within the city core, from a suburb to the city core or from the city core to a suburb, an increasing number are using either public transit or active modes of transportation to get to work (such as biking or walking).

However, among those who are doing other types of commutes—for example, from one suburb to another—car use was still predominant in 2016, with little change since 1996.

These findings have potential implications for municipalities and local governments in the planning and design of transportation infrastructure in large metropolitan areas.

The majority of workers now work outside the city core

In Canada's large metropolitan areas, an increasing number of people are working outside the city core. In the study, the city core is defined as areas located within 5 km of the city centre.

In the eight largest CMAs, the majority of workers had a place of work outside the city core in 2016. This was particularly the case in Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver, where at least 70% of workers had a job located 5 km or more from the city centre.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Proportion of commuters with a usual place of work located 5 km or more from the city centre, eight largest census metropolitan areas, 1996 and 2016
Proportion of commuters with a usual place of work located 5 km or more from the city centre, eight largest census metropolitan areas, 1996 and 2016

In particular, Toronto was more likely to have a large number of people working away from the city centre. In that CMA, more than one-quarter of commuters worked 25 km or more from the city centre in 2016—up from one-fifth in 1996.

Some CMAs still had a significant number of jobs located within the city core. Of the eight largest CMAs, Winnipeg had the highest share of people who worked in the city core in 2016 (48%), followed by Ottawa–Gatineau (46%).

The number of suburban commuters is on the rise in large CMAs

With more people and businesses located in suburban areas, commuting choices and patterns have changed in the past two decades.

In the study, commuters have been divided into five categories: within the city-core commuters (who both live and work within 5 km of the city centre); traditional commuters (living in a suburb and working in the city core); reverse commuters (living in the city core and working in a suburb); short suburban commuters (living and working in a suburb, with a commute of less than 5 km); and long suburban commuters (living and working in a suburb, with a commute of 5 km or more).

The share of within city-core commuters declined in every CMA from 1996 to 2016. For example, in Calgary, the proportion of workers who commuted within the city core declined from 22% to 9%.

In seven of the eight largest CMAs—Winnipeg being the sole exception—the number of suburban commuters (includes both short and long suburban commuters) surpassed the number of workers who were doing all other types of commute in 2016.

This was especially the case in the largest CMAs. In Toronto and Montréal, the proportion of suburban commuters was over 70%. In Vancouver, the proportion was 64%.

From 1996 to 2016, the largest growth in the proportion of suburban commuters was in Calgary, up from 43% to 56%.

Suburban commuters are less likely to use public transit

A relatively small share of suburban commuters use public transit or active modes of transportation such as walking or bicycling, even in large metropolitan areas that have more developed public transit and bicycling infrastructure.

In Toronto, 13% of long suburban commuters used public transit in 2016—largely unchanged from 1996. Public transit use among long suburban commuters was lower in CMAs such as Edmonton and Québec, at 5% in each.

Conversely, public transit use increased among those who were traditional commuters (from a suburb to the city core). In Toronto, 67% of these commuters used public transit in 2016, up from 53% in 1996. Public transit use also increased among traditional commuters in other large CMAs over this period, from 38% to 55% in Montréal and from 30% to 45% in Vancouver.

Another important development has been the large increase in the proportion of commuters walking or biking among those who both worked and lived within the city core.

In Toronto, 47% of within city-core commuters used an active mode of transportation in 2016, up from 19% in 1996. Montréal (from 16% to 38%), Vancouver (from 17% to 39%) Calgary (from 15% to 38%) and Ottawa–Gatineau (from 22% to 42%) also reported large increases. The proportions also increased in other CMAs, but by a smaller margin.

  Note to readers

This release uses Census of Population data from 1996 and 2016. The population in this study includes workers aged 15 and older with a usual place of work in Canada's eight largest census metropolitan areas (CMAs): Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa–Gatineau, Edmonton, Québec and Winnipeg.

In 2016, over half (54%) of the 13.9 million commuters with a usual place of work lived in the eight largest CMAs. These highly populated areas include developed public transportation systems, a large concentration of businesses in the city core, and complex daily commuting flows.

To describe the commuting patterns within cities, each CMA has been divided into five commuting types: (1) within city-core commutes, defined as the residence and job location being within 5 km of the city centre; (2) traditional commutes, defined as the job location being within 5 km of the city centre and the residence being more than 5 km from the city centre; (3) reverse commutes, defined as the job location being further than 5 km from the city centre and the residence being within 5 km of the city centre; (4) short suburban commutes, defined as both the residence and job locations being further than 5 km from the city centre, but with a commuting distance shorter than 5 km; and (5) long suburban commutes, defined as both the residence and job locations being further than 5 km from the city centre, but with a commuting distance of 5 km or more. Categories 4 and 5 are referred to as "suburban commuters."

Products

The study "Results from the 2016 Census: Commuting within Canada's largest cities" is now available as part of Insights on Canadian Society (Catalogue number75-006-X).

Contact information

For more information, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; STATCAN.infostats-infostats.STATCAN@canada.ca).

To enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Katherine Savage (613-716-1077; katherine.savage@canada.ca).

For more information on Insights on Canadian Society, contact Sébastien LaRochelle-Côté (613-951-0803; sebastien.larochelle-cote@canada.ca).

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