Reducing Commute Times Requires Strategies that Work: More public transit won’t reduce commute times

Commentary, Transportation, Wendell Cox


The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has rightly identified the extraordinarily long commute times in the country’s metropolitan areas as a drag on urban economies. In launching its "cutmycommute" social media campaign, FCM noted that "long daily commutes – more than 75 minutes on average, in Canada´s biggest cities – are hurting the country´s economic competiveness," and further noted that "the average Canadian commuter spends the equivalent of 32 working days a year commuting to and from work, facing some of the worst commute times in the developed world."
There is a well documented connection between minimizing urban travel times and economic growth. FCM cited research to the effect than more than $5 billion annual economic losses at the national level from traffic congestion. The cost, however, is more than economic. As FCM put it "every hour Canadians spend on the road is an hour they spend away from their families … and studies."
The recent Toronto Board of Trade Scorecard on Prosperity illustrated the depth of the problem. According to the report, commuters in Toronto spend an average of 80 minutes per day, round-trip, traveling between home and work. Things are little better in Montréal, where the average round trip commute is 76 minutes. These are the worst commute times in North America (Canada and the United States). None of the more than 50 metropolitan areas in the United States with more than 1,000,000 population comes close to a 76 minute round trip commute.
The Board of Trade reported somewhat shorter commute times in Vancouver and Calgary, both at 67 minutes per day round-trip. But even these shorter commute times compare unfavorably. Vancouver and Calgary have longer commute times than all but two major United States metropolitan areas (New York and Washington), longer even than Los Angeles, where the average round trip work trip travel time is 56 minutes, despite its reputation for intense traffic congestion.
Yet, despite its recognition of the necessity to reduce average commuting times, FCM emphasizes strategies that offer little hope of achieving the objective. FCM specifically calls for spending more tax money on buses, subways, and commuter rail. FCM further proposes that more of the money sent to Ottawa should be sent back to metropolitan areas to finance these expansions. There are two problems with this approach.
The first problem is that more public transit will not reduce commute times. According to Statistics Canada, the average round trip commute by transit takes 106 minutes, much longer than the 59 minute average commute time by car. If more people rode transit to work, it is likely that the average commute time would be even longer, and the economic and social losses would be greater.
Further, according to Statistics Canada, metropolitan areas continue to disperse in terms of residences and employment. These lower density development patterns are very difficult for public transit to serve. Transit’s strongest market, downtown areas, is generally experiencing a decline in their share of metropolitan employment.
The second problem lies in seeking more money from Ottawa. This is illustrated by the experience of the United States, where the principal accomplishment of the large federal transit program has been to spend additional billions while transit carries a smaller share of urban travel than before. Some European nations have rejected this US model, paring central government transit programs and shifting transit funding responsibility to local and regional governments. In part, this is out of the simple recognition that governments are likely to spend local tax money more carefully than taxes collected from more remote jurisdictions.
There is a further problem. Some metropolitan areas are subject to strict densification policies, which largely outlaw the natural expansion of urbanization as the population increases. As population densities increase, so do automobile densities and so does traffic congestion. In the face of such densification policies, the prospect is for ever increasing commute times because it is far more expensive to build sufficient roadway capacity where densities are higher.
FCM calls for setting "concrete targets to cap rising commute times." Indeed, given the seriousness of the problem, such targets should seek a reduction in the time people spend traveling to work. Travel times can be capped or reduced only if the policies that can accomplish such targets are not discarded. No strategy, not roadway expansion, not telecommuting, not traffic management, and not transit should be excluded. Every million or billion dollars of metropolitan transportation spending should include in its evaluation the return in reducing commute times.