Time to Get Real about Transit

Commentary, Municipal Government, Wendell Cox

Statistics Canada’s finding that transit is a lot slower than cars for getting to work will surprise no one with a genuine understanding of urban policy, but it will astonish many average Canadians who have been fed an endless litany of anti-automobile dogma and transit blather by many in the media and public office.

In fact, from Paris to Portland and Perth, it takes much more time to travel by transit than by car. That, of course, is assuming that there is transit service at all for the required trip, which often there is not.

The Statistics Canada data indicates that the average car user spends 41 minutes less traveling to and from work than the average transit user. This means a transit commuter spends 150 hours more traveling to and from work than an automobile commuter. Lost time is lost productivity and lost economic growth. Highway analysts have long calculated the costs of congestion — the cost of lost time that occurs because highways are overcrowded due to insufficient capacity. The same factor can be applied to the time lost in transit commuting. If all car commuters in the nation moved to transit, spending another 41 minutes daily in work trip travel, the lost time would exceed two billion hours. The cost in lost productivity would approach $30 billion, approximately the same as the gross domestic product of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island combined.

Travel times are deteriorating rapidly. In Toronto, the average commuter spends 79 minutes a day traveling to and from work, up from 68 minutes in just 13 years. Montreal commuters spent 76 minutes, up from 62 minutes in 1992. Average commute times exceeded 60 minutes in all of the metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population. Moreover, things are poised to get much worse in Toronto, where greenbelt and densification policies promise even greater traffic congestion.

These are stunning numbers. Tokyo commuters spend 106 minutes time traveling to and from work, more than most places. But not more than Oshawa, whose commuters spend 111 minutes. In the United States the average worker spends 49 minutes traveling to and from work, compared to 63 minutes in Canada. The average Toronto commuter spends 20 minutes more traveling to and from work than their counterpart in Los Angeles. Only in New York, Chicago, Washington (DC) and Atlanta out of the 54 US metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population does the average commuter spend more than 60 minutes traveling to and from work. In none of these four does the number reach 70 minutes. Worse, commute times are deteriorating much more quickly in Canada, having increased nine minutes in the last 13 years. US commute times increased less than three minutes from 1990 to 2004.

Part of the reason for the longer commute times in Canadian metropolitan areas is that they have somewhat higher densities than the larger US metropolitan areas. The lower densities in the United States dilute traffic congestion, making commute times less, even though travel distances are longer. Further, cars that travel faster, more steady speeds pollute less.

None of this is to suggest that there is not an important role for transit. In those few areas where there is highly intense development — such as downtown Toronto and downtown Montreal, transit can compete because of longer commute trips and greater traffic congestion. But for most jobs in metropolitan areas — the 80 to 90 percent of jobs that are not downtown, transit is no substitute for the automobile, because using it would take forever, even where there is service.

Reality is the important lesson of the Statistics Canada data. It is time for policy-makers to level with the public about transit. People are not going to sacrifice more than three hours a week to travel by work to transit. There will never be sufficient funding to make transit competitive to much more than downtown. No service design has ever been seriously proposed that would expand automobile competitive service to the vast suburban areas that have developed over the past 60 years and where most people live.

The platitudes typically mouthed about transit whenever traffic congestion may sound comforting, but only deter consideration of the roadway and land use policy strategies required in modern, automobile-oriented urban areas, whether in Canada or even Western Europe. Transit makes sense for 10 to 20 percent of commuting in Canada. For the other 80 to 90 percent, transit is simply not a viable option, nor will it ever be. It’s time to stop pretending.

Wendell Cox is a public policy consultant based in St. Louis, a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris.