What you auto know: Statistics show driving to work tops transit

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Last week, while looking for average commute times across Canada, I stumbled across data about how Canadians commute.

We prefer driving to work. About four out of five us take a car, truck or van from our homes to our workplaces every day. And no matter how much politicians pump into transit and bike lanes, there is very little that can pry us from our automobiles.

And why should we change?

Here’s the first interesting stat I didn’t know: Driving to work is quicker than taking transit. That makes sense. I’m sure that is most people’s personal experience. But the tut-tutting anti-car propaganda of the past 40 years has made it sound as though transit (and even biking) is faster.

But according to Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey (a part of the 2011 census), "commuters who used a private vehicle spend an average of 23.7 minutes travelling to work, compared with 40.4 minutes for bus riders, 44.6 minutes for subway users and 52.5 minutes for light rail, streetcar or commuter train passengers."

That means for bus riders, the ride to work or school is two-thirds longer than driving. For subway riders its 88% longer and for LRT and train riders, it’s more than a 120% as long.

Sometimes the difference can be explained by distance. Train passengers live farther away than bus riders and drivers — sometimes. And the percentage differences are smaller in Toronto, which has the longest driving commute on the continent — longer even than New York and L.A.

But in no city, including Toronto, was transit faster than private vehicles.

It seems inescapable that big cities must build transit to keep traffic congestion from getting worse. But it should be equally obvious that improving roads and expressways is just as necessary — perhaps more so — given that Canadians are car commuters.

City planners can move the needle a few degrees. Calgary, for instance, with four full LRT (C-Train) lines from the ‘burbs into the core has 5% fewer car commuters than Edmonton, which has just one line from a residential district in which residents work downtown.

But is the difference worth another $2 billion being spent on LRT? The Alberta capital has a much smaller percentage of its workforce working downtown than Calgary. Edmontonians tend to commute around the city’s outer ring, so LRT is less practical.

But the stat that truly blew me away was the small number of Canadians — the infinitesimally tiny number — who commute by bicycle.

In most major cities, only about 1% of commuters get to work on bikes, even in cities with bike-friendly climates, like Vancouver where just 1.7% of commuters pedal to work.

In Edmonton, 1.1% of residents bicycle commute (and I guarantee you, StatsCan asked the question on a warm, sunny day in June rather than a typical January day). In Toronto, it’s 1.2% and Montreal 1.7%. Ottawa is 2.2%.

Victoria is the pedalling-est major city at 5.9%. But it’s a government town (meaning people have more time to ride to work) with comparatively light traffic and the nicest climate in Canada.

Even Portland, Oregon, which is often held up as the pinnacle of commuting conscientiousness, has roughly the same commuter mix as Edmonton — 82% private vehicles in Edmonton versus 81% in Portland, 11% on transit in both cities and 1% cyclists versus 2%.

The entire difference between the two can be explained away by Portland’s far more moderate winter weather rather than the millions it has spent on bike infrastructure.

So while politicians and planners are obsessed with getting us out of our cars, perhaps they should be obsessed with get our cars to work faster instead.