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Enjoy the summer commute… while you can

Canadians’ reluctance to embrace public transit, government’s refusal to build new roads carries high price tag for employers

By Todd Humber

Ah, summer commuting. The highways are (relatively) empty as workers enjoy much-deserved vacations, parking spaces spring eternal and everyone in the office has a bit more bounce in their step thanks to the mind-numbing drive becoming somewhat tolerable.

But there’s a dark cloud looming, one that says “you can’t wear white anymore” and signals the return of rush-hour chaos on Canada’s highways: Labour Day.

When we were kids, Labour Day was despised because it meant the end of carefree summer days and a return to school. Now, for anyone who drives to work — most of us — the unofficial end of summer is cursed for another reason: Return of the traffic jam.

Canadians have an insatiable appetite for four wheels — it is, by far, our favourite means of getting from home to work and back again.

According to 2006 figures from Statistics Canada, the most recent available, 72.3 per cent of us drive to work and an additional 7.7 per cent are a passenger. That means eight out of 10 Canadians take four wheels to work.

Public transit is a mere drop in the bucket by comparison — just 11 per cent of commuters use it. Even in big cities, with comprehensive transit networks, employees aren’t abandoning the car. In Toronto, 71.1 per cent drive to work while 22.2 per cent take transit. In Montreal, 70.4 per cent opt for the car and 21.4 per cent take transit. In Vancouver, only 16.3 per cent opt for public transit as a means to get to work while 74.4 per cent drive. In many smaller cities, public transit is barely a blip.

Slightly more than six per cent of us walk to work, 1.3 per cent bicycle, a handful ride motorcycles or take taxis and about 0.01 per cent of us — or 126,925 Canadians — take an “other” method to get to work. That’s… um, curious. If you’re not getting to work as a driver, passenger, via transit, walking, biking, riding a motorcycle or taking a taxi, by what method, exactly, are you commuting?

Not to downplay the importance of transit — just imagine how much worse the traffic would be without all the buses and trains — but the car is the undisputed champion of commuting. In 2007, two-thirds of Canadians lived within five minutes of public transit, yet nearly three-quarters of households said they don’t use it because they have access to a car. Other stumbling blocks included inconvenient scheduling, living too close to their destination, or service that was too slow or infrequent.

But this rejection of transit is posing a real problem for employers, because cash-strapped government won’t build new roads.

We’re talking real dollars in lost productivity because workers are crawling through gridlock. Congestion on Toronto’s highways is costing the city $3.3 billion in lost productivity a year, according to 2009 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and that number is only getting worse as the population and the number of cars on the road increases.

And it’s not just big cities facing a problem. The booming oil town of Fort McMurray, Alta., is battling commuter chaos. An overburdened section of Highway 63 in northern Alberta has become known for “Los Angeles-like traffic jams,” according to a Globe and Mail article. But there, unlike in major cities, new roads are being built that might help ease the problem.

Employers understand the high costs of congestion. Suncor Energy wanted a new interchange in Fort McMurray so desperately it actually handed the Alberta government $55 million to pay for it.

Unfortunately, big city employers don’t have that option — their pockets aren’t deep enough to pay for the infrastructure needed to ease congestion created by hundreds of thousands of cars.

But there are smaller, reasoned steps many employers can take that cost nothing. Flex hours can pull commuters out of peak travel times. Telecommuting and the ability to occasionally work from home can ease the pain. And a simple understanding that an employee who is stuck in traffic for hours because of an accident or inclement weather doesn’t need to walk into the office to a scolding about being late can help ease stress levels during the drive.

The good news? Not all of us hate the commute — 38 per cent actually enjoy it, according to Statistics Canada. Let’s stay in their camp for the next couple of weeks, taking advantage of the open roads that August brings. We’ll grudgingly cope with September gridlock when it arrives.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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