Employers have an interest in demanding regionwide transit (Editorial)

By John Hobel
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/21/2005

To get to work from my western corner of the Greater Toronto Area to Canadian HR Reporter’s offices in the northeast sector means two buses, two subway lines, one GO Train and three different transit systems. Or I can drive.

And that in a nutshell is what’s clogging Canada’s highways, day in, day out.

It’s a situation facing more and more Canadians who work outside city cores, Statistics Canada warns in new report on commuting patterns. And it will only get worse. Job growth in Canadian suburbs is outpacing that of city cores by four times, but transit systems haven’t kept up with the times.

Commuting patterns have become more complex, with smaller shares of commuters travelling on the traditional suburb-to-core routes upon which many metropolitan transit systems were originally built. Whether it’s Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal, Canada’s growing urban areas are in need of transit strategies to move commuters to and from jobs outside the city core, StatsCan notes.

The report,

Work and Commuting in Census Metropolitan Areas, 1996 to 2001

, describes the emergence of the “cross-town commute.” Promoting public transit use among workers employed outside city cores is the challenge for large urban areas, the report states.

When a job is within five kilometres of a city centre, 24 per cent of commuters take transit. This falls to 14 per cent when the job is between five and 10 km from the city core, and drops even further when the distance is greater than 10 km. In most large urban areas, 90 per cent of people working 20 km from the city core drive to work.

In Toronto and Montreal, few commuters use transit when their jobs are 20 km outside downtown. In Ottawa-Hull, suburb-to-suburb commuters account for 41 per cent of employment growth between 1996 and 2001, but only seven per cent of suburb-to-suburb commuters took transit.

This adds up to an urgent need for municipal and provincial planners to recognize and respond to the changed nature of the workforce commute. How well, or poorly, urban areas respond to this challenge will have a great impact on recruitment, retention and employee mental health. And that’s a good reason for business leaders to champion the cause of adequately funded, integrated regional transit systems.

In terms of recruitment and retention, the bigger an urban area gets, the smaller the labour pool actually becomes. Once commuter traffic hits a certain level, it becomes a disincentive for someone living in one end of a city to consider a position outside that area. And for those workers who are willing to brave the long commute, two to four hours a day in traffic has an impact on both mental health and productivity.

When one looks at the productivity of the labour force and work-life balance concerns, business must recognize that having large chunks of the workforce fighting traffic for 10 or more hours during the work week doesn’t add up to a competitive edge in the global economy.

Offering telework helps the problem, but it can only do so much — you can’t telework on an assembly line.

Flex scheduling, which distributes the commute, also has limitations. In places such as Toronto, rush hour has become every hour, with traffic snarls regularly occurring at any time of the day anyone dares to venture onto the roadways. “Doing lunch” with someone outside of walking distance can be a half-day travel commitment.

Statistics Canada’s report notes manufacturing and retail jobs in particular are shifting to suburbs. Jobs in these two sectors do not lend themselves to either telework or flex-scheduling.

It’s time to take pressure off strained commuter routes and put it on provincial governments that have the ability to mandate and fund solutions. Regionwide transit is a priority business leaders must put on the agenda. It’s a situation companies have helped create. Businesses have taken advantage of lower taxes and realty prices to locate outside city centres, with nary a thought about commuters. It’s time to take responsibility and help look for solutions.

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