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Journey to work: Key results from the 2016 Census

Released: 2017-11-29

More Canadians commuted to work in 2016 and a greater proportion took public transit than ever before.

For most working Canadians, commuting is part of daily life. Since 1996, the number of commuters has risen by 3.7 million or 30.3% to 15.9 million in 2016.

But how they get to work is changing. From 1996 to 2016, the number of commuters taking public transit grew by 59.5%, while those using a car increased by 28.3%.

Canada's workforce is also increasingly living in urban areas. In 1996, 8.6 million or 70.5% of employed Canadians who commuted to work were living in a census metropolitan area (CMA). By 2016, this proportion had increased to 73.5% or 11.7 million.

Access to public transit is closely tied to urban land use. With the population increasing in urban areas, traffic congestion is also rising. With more congestion, commuting times are getting longer for commuters using road networks.

Commuters spent an average of 26.2 minutes travelling to their workplace in 2016, up 0.8 minutes from 2011 (25.4 minutes). In 2016, the average commuting time was 24.1 minutes for car commuters and 44.8 minutes for public transit commuters.

How people get to work is sometimes a matter of choice; they enjoy the walk, or they like to drive. In many other cases, however, financial circumstances, distance to work, reasonable access to public transit infrastructure, or the need for work-life balance can make certain modes of transportation to work almost a necessity over others.

Commuting issues are important for municipal and urban planners as well as other policy makers, notably those in economic, health, environmental or social policy. There are personal economic costs for commuting (such as vehicle maintenance) and public economic costs (such as productivity, or infrastructure investments). Long commutes are associated with poor health outcomes. Environmentally, greater use of sustainable transportation means less pollution and road congestion. For social policy, long commutes can put a strain on family relationships.

Today, Statistics Canada is releasing the sixth and final series of data from the 2016 Census, covering education, labour, journey to work, mobility and language at work.

Use of public transit has edged up since 1996

Public transit—whether bus, subway, train, commuter rail, or ferry—is an important way for people to get to and from work every day. In Canada, the proportion of people commuting to work by public transit has edged up with every census since collection of this information began in 1996, rising from 10.1% that year to 12.4% in 2016. This slow but steady growth represents a 59.5% increase in the number of public transit commuters (+734,350) over this 20-year period, a much higher pace of growth than the 30.3% increase in the number of all commuters over the same period.

Public transit is found where populations are large enough to justify the costs of the infrastructure required. Nearly three-quarters of all working Canadians lived in a CMA in 2016, which is where much of Canada's public transit infrastructure is found.

The extent to which public transit is used in the different CMAs depends on several factors, including: population density, concentration of jobs in sectors that are well serviced by public transit, the cost of using cars compared to public transit, the availability of parking close to work, the quality and speed of service, and so on.

In general, the largest CMAs are much more likely to have a well-established public transit system, which encourages people to use it to get to their workplace.

Among the three most populous CMAs, Toronto had the highest proportion of workers using public transit, followed by Montréal and Vancouver. For decades, Toronto and Montréal have had multiple types of public transit and have expanded capacity and coverage within their borders over time.

Among the three largest CMAs, however, Vancouver had the largest growth in the proportion of public transit commuters from 1996 to 2016, increasing 6.1 percentage points to 20.4%.

The Vancouver area saw two major expansions of the Vancouver SkyTrain transit system, opening a total of 53 additional kilometres (km) of commuter rail in 2002 and 2009. This expansion nearly tripled the total track length to 82 km. In addition to expanding the bus fleet by over 250 buses from 2005 to 2009, these changes could explain part of the increase in the proportion of public transit commuters in Vancouver over this 20-year period. This increase significantly narrowed the gaps in the proportion of workers using public transit compared with the other two largest CMAs.

Among the next largest CMAs (Québec, Ottawa–Gatineau, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary), Ottawa–Gatineau had the highest proportion of workers using public transit, at 18.3% in 2016. While Edmonton (11.3%) had one of the lowest proportions of public transit use in this group, it recorded the largest increase from 1996.

Chart 1  Chart 1: Public transit commuting among the eight largest census metropolitan areas, 1996 and 2016
Public transit commuting among the eight largest census metropolitan areas, 1996 and 2016

The proportion of public transit commuters in Winnipeg edged down from 1996 to 2016. However, all of the decline occurred from 1996 to 2001 (14.3% to 13.0%). The proportion of commuters using public transit was little changed in 2006, but has been edging up since then, reaching 13.6% in 2016.

A smaller share of commuters walk to work

Walking or cycling to work, also known as active transportation, is more common when the workplace is close to where the person lives, and can be further influenced by the availability of paths or assigned roadways along the route.

The percentage of employed people walking or bicycling to work declined by 1.2 percentage points compared with 20 years earlier, falling from 8.1% in 1996 to 6.9% in 2016. All of the decline was among commuters walking to work (from 7.0% in 1996 to 5.5% in 2016).

Despite the lower proportion of people walking to work, the number of walking commuters increased by 3.2% over this 20-year period. However, this was at a much slower pace than the overall growth in the number of people commuting (+30.3%). The number of people cycling to work has risen by 61.6% since 1996, more than twice the pace of overall commuter growth.

Chart 2  Chart 2: Growth in the number of commuters by main mode of commuting, Canada, 1996 to 2016
Growth in the number of commuters by main mode of commuting, Canada, 1996 to 2016

Walking or cycling to work was more common in some metropolitan areas. In Victoria, 16.9% of commuters used active transportation to get to work, the highest proportion of all CMAs. Kingston, Halifax, Vancouver, Ottawa–Gatineau and Peterborough were also among the CMAs with a proportion of active transportation higher than the national average.

Sustainable modes of commuting more prevalent among women and youth

Nearly one-third of commuters used sustainable transportation in 2016—that is, they used public transit, walked, cycled or carpooled.

In 2016, women were more likely than men to use sustainable transportation (33.8% versus 29.1%), with most of the difference accounted for by women's greater use of public transit to get to work.

Almost half of youths aged 15 to 24 used a form of sustainable transportation to get to work, the highest of all age groups. They were the age group most likely to use all modes of sustainable transportation, except for bicycling. These higher proportions are influenced by youth being less likely to own or have regular access to a car.

Those aged 65 and older had the lowest proportion of sustainable transportation commuting to work, largely a result of having the lowest proportion of public transit commuting (7.7%) and carpooling (9.7%).

With almost three-quarters (73.5%) of all workers living in a CMA in 2016, certain modes of sustainable transportation, particularly public transit, were more available in these urban environments. More detailed information on sustainable transportation in these metropolitan areas is available in the publication "Commuters using sustainable transportation in census metropolitan areas," as part of the Census in Brief series.

The proportion of private vehicle commuters has edged down since 1996, notably in the three largest CMAs

Driving is part of everyday life for many Canadians, whether for personal activities or for getting to work. A private vehicle remained by far the most commonly used main mode of commuting to work in 2016—with four in five employed Canadians using a car, truck or van.

The number of commuters increased by 3.7 million from 1996 to 2016. Of this increase, 2.8 million were driving to work. As a proportion of all commuters, however, driving to work has edged down from 80.7% to 79.5% over this 20-year period.

The three largest CMAs of Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver had larger declines in the share of private vehicle commuters than the national average, ranging from a 2.9 percentage point decline over the 20-year period for commuters living in Montréal, to a 7.9 percentage point decrease in Vancouver. This was the first time that all three CMAs saw their share of private vehicle commuters fall below 70.0% since comparable data on the mode of transportation became available in 1996.

In Montréal, almost all of the decline in the proportion of commuting by private vehicle was countered by increased use of public transit. In Toronto, a greater proportion of commuters took either public transit or walked or cycled to work.

The share of workers using a private vehicle to get to work also decreased notably in Kelowna, Victoria and Oshawa from 1996 to 2016. In Kelowna and Victoria, the share of commuters walking or cycling and using public transit increased, while in Oshawa, there was a higher proportion of commuters using public transit.

Carpooling was most common in Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and the territories

While most commuters using a private vehicle drove alone, others shared the ride to work. Carpooling (that is, two or more commuters in a private vehicle) was used by nearly one in eight Canadians. Across Canada, carpooling to work was most prevalent in the Atlantic provinces, Manitoba and the territories and least common in Quebec. This is consistent with results from 2011.

Decisions to carpool, or not, could be affected by the distance of the commute. They could also be affected by the availability of high occupancy vehicle lanes (that is, carpool lanes). In Canada, these have only become more available in the past decade and only in some of Canada's largest municipalities. For more information, see the publication "Commuters using sustainable transportation in census metropolitan areas" in the Census in Brief series.

The average one-way commuting time rises from 2011 to 2016, mostly attributable to public transit

Commuters spent an average of 26.2 minutes travelling to their workplace in 2016, up 0.8 minutes compared with 25.4 minutes in 2011, the first time these data were collected.

Nationally, most of the increase in overall commuting time was attributable to a longer average commute for those whose main mode of commuting was public transit, which rose 1.9 minutes to 44.8 minutes in 2016.

Various international studies show that long commutes, particularly in a private vehicle, affect people's health and overall productivity. Although the average private vehicle commute was 24.1 minutes, there were 853,610 people working in 2016 who spent at least one hour getting to work in a private vehicle each day, up from 815,770 in 2011. In both 2011 and 2016, this represented nearly 7.0% of all private vehicle commuters.

Chart 3: Average one-way commuting duration (in minutes), census metropolitan areas, 2016

The average commuting time increased by over one minute in both Vancouver and Toronto from 2011 to 2016. Vancouver still had the shortest average commuting time of the three largest CMAs at 29.7 minutes, just below Montréal's 30.0 minutes, while Toronto had the longest at 34.0 minutes.

Looking at the next largest CMAs in terms of population, workers in Ottawa–Gatineau spent 27.3 minutes on average commuting in 2016, up one minute from 2011. Over the same period, the average time was little changed in Calgary and Edmonton.

Distance from home to work up slightly from 1996

The time needed to get to work depends, in general, on the commuting distance. However, traffic congestion, mode of commuting and the time leaving for work can also affect commuting times, so some short-distance commutes can take a long time while some long-distance commutes can be relatively quick.

In 2016, workers commuted a median distance of 7.7 km one-way to go from home to their usual place of work. In other words, half of employed workers commuted more than 7.7 km, and half commuted under 7.7 km. This was up slightly from a median distance of 7.0 km in 1996.

The median one-way distance for people who drove to their usual place of work increased slightly over the 20-year period, from 7.8 km in 1996 to 8.7 km in 2016. There was a similar increase among public transit commuters, whose median one-way distance rose from 7.1 km to 7.9 km over that period. The median one-way distance was little changed for workers who cycled to work (2.8 km in 1996 versus 2.9 km in 2016) and for those who walked (1.0 km in 1996 versus 0.9 km in 2016).

Among the three largest CMAs over the 20-year period, the median one-way commuting distance edged down for workers with a usual place of work in Vancouver, from 7.7 km to 7.4 km. Meanwhile, it edged up in Toronto (from 9.3 km to 9.6 km) and was unchanged in Montréal (8.2 km).

The proportion of workers working at home and with a usual place of work both decline over time

Where Canadians work are grouped into four main categories: those with a usual place of work; those who work at home; those who have no fixed workplace address; and those who work outside Canada.

The proportion of employed people who commuted to a usual place of work declined from 83.9% in 1996 to 80.6% in 2016.

The proportion of Canadians working at home has also been slowly declining, from 8.2% in 1996 to 7.4% in 2016. This decline is attributable to the lower number of workers in farming occupations, since these occupations have the highest proportion of at-home workers. In 1996, one in four at-home workers was in a farming occupation. By 2016, this proportion had fallen to about one in seven. The decline in farming occupations coincides with a 30.0% decrease (-83,056) in agricultural operations since 1996, as reported in the 2016 Census of Agriculture release.

Excluding farming occupations, the share of Canadians working at home in 1996 and 2016 was roughly the same, at just over 6.0%.

The three CMAs with the highest shares of people working at home were in British Columbia. Kelowna had the highest proportion at 9.3%, followed by Victoria (8.4%) and Vancouver (8.2%). These CMAs also had some of the highest proportions of people working in professional, scientific and technical services, such as engineers (including computer engineers), accountants and various kinds of consultants. Conversely, the lowest shares of at-home workers were in Thunder Bay, Windsor and Greater Sudbury, each at around 4.0%.

Larger share of employed Canadians with no fixed workplace in 2016

People can have no fixed workplace because the type of work they perform requires them to frequently switch their work location. Examples are construction crews, truck drivers, salespersons, independent contractors or temporary agency employees.

Workers with no fixed workplace location present a challenge to urban transportation planners, urban planners and public safety experts. Among other things, it is difficult to estimate how many people are going to use a particular road or a public transit service when many workers travel to destinations that vary from day to day. The proportion of people working at home or at a usual place of work declined from 1996 to 2016, while the share of workers in Canada with no fixed workplace location grew by 3.9 percentage points to 11.5%.

Most employed people with no fixed workplace location in 2016 worked in construction (31.2%), administrative and support, waste management and remediation services (10.8%), and in transportation and warehousing (10.7%). The occupational distribution of those with no fixed workplace has changed very little since 1996.

Since the share of workers in these sectors varies across the provinces and territories, the proportion of workers with no fixed workplace also varies across the country. People living in Alberta (14.6%) and British Columbia (14.1%) were more likely to have no fixed workplace location, while the proportion was smallest in Nunavut (7.4%) and Quebec (8.9%).

Increased commuter growth in communities surrounding Canada's three biggest cities

Every CMA in Canada includes more than one municipality. For example, the Toronto CMA includes 24 different municipalities. People can live in one municipality and work in another, and yet both are within the same CMA. Within Canada's largest CMAs, the cities or municipalities where people work have shifted over time.

For example, 191,450 more Canadians were commuting to or within the City of Toronto in 2016 compared with 1996, a 16.6% increase. However, this gain was at a slower pace than the overall growth of commuters in Canada. As a result, the proportion of all Canadian commuters working in the City of Toronto declined by 0.6 percentage points from 1996 to 2016. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of commuters were working in the cities surrounding the City of Toronto in 2016 compared with 1996. In other words, workplace locations are slowly shifting from Toronto to its neighbours.

Similarly, the proportion of all Canadians commuting to or within the City of Montréal declined by 0.8 percentage points since 1996, while it increased for some of its surrounding communities.

The story was also similar for Vancouver, where the proportion of all commuters working in the City of Vancouver edged down 0.1 percentage points, while the proportion of commuters working in other nearby communities increased.

Wood Buffalo had the highest proportion of out-of-province workers in 2016

Census data make it possible to look at the relationship between the usual place of work and the permanent residence. This allows for an understanding of transportation flows not only within a province or territory, but also between provinces and territories.

Relatively few commuters (1.2% in 2016, including cross-border city regions) had a usual place of work in a province or territory other than the province or territory of their usual residence.

In 2016, 18.2% of workers whose usual place of work was in Wood Buffalo had a permanent residence outside Alberta. In 2011, the proportion was 15.4%. Among regions with 30,000 or more people (and excluding cross-border city regions), this was the highest proportion of out-of-province workers. About 4,000 Wood Buffalo workers were permanent residents of British Columbia in 2016, and about another 4,000 resided in Atlantic Canada.

Wood Buffalo, which includes the city of Fort McMurray, has been one of the fastest growing industrial regions in the country because of the Athabasca oil sands. The high proportion of out-of-province workers in this region is attributable to the large portion of people working in the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas sector (36.5%) and in construction (13.3%).

Among the territories in 2016, 14.2% of workers in Nunavut permanently resided elsewhere, mainly Ontario and Quebec. The largest proportion of out-of-province workers in Nunavut was working in natural resources. Similarly, 9.8% of those working in the Northwest Territories permanently resided elsewhere (mainly Alberta and British Columbia), and 3.3% of those working in Yukon permanently resided elsewhere (predominantly British Columbia).

Canada-United States comparison

The measurements of commuting in the Canadian census (2016) and the American Community Survey (2016) are very similar, allowing for some comparisons in commuting between these two countries. There is a small difference as a result of Canada's data being for the working population aged 15 years and older, while in the United States it is for those aged 16 years and older.

In 2016, 12.4% of Canadian workers commuted by public transit—over double the proportion in the United States (5.4%). As well, 5.5% of commuters in Canada walked to work, compared with 2.9% of American commuters.

As mentioned earlier, nearly one in eight Canadians carpooled. In the United States, almost 1 in 10 Americans shared the ride to work in 2016. In the United States, 80.4% of commuters drove alone, compared with 67.4% of Canadian commuters.

The average time needed to get from home to work was not much different in Canada compared with the United States. The average commute time in Canada was 26.2 minutes in 2016, compared with 26.6 minutes in the United States.

Telling Canada's story in numbers; #ByTheNumbers

In celebration of the country's 150th birthday, Statistics Canada is presenting snapshots from our rich statistical history.

At the time of Confederation in 1867, where a person lived largely dictated what kind of job they could obtain. At that time, 40% of jobs were on the farm. Labourers and lumbermen accounted for 25% of all labourers, while just over 10% worked in the fisheries.

Many of those working in agriculture or in trades would have been working where they lived or near their home. Most people working in lumber and fishing would have had no fixed workplace. A minority of workers had a usual place of work away from their homestead, and they would have gotten to work by walking, by horse or by wagon. Their distance to work would not have been long, but the time to get to work may have been, with an average walking speed of 4 to 5 kilometres (km) an hour, and a horse trotting speed of 6 to 10 km/hour.

The rise of the city began slowly about the time of Confederation, and picked up in the 1880s as the construction of multi-story buildings accelerated. By the early 1900s, the automobile started replacing the horse as a mode of transportation, and travel for work or pleasure from outside into or around the city became much more common. More options for where to live and how to get to work started to transform the Canadian commute.

Compared with Confederation, 1 in 14 Canadians worked at home in 2016. While farming and home-based tradespeople are still represented, so are telecommuters and the self-employed who use technology to engage with their clients. Many with no fixed workplaces are in trades, delivery services, or work in oil and gas exploration. The majority of people now work in a usual location, travelling an average of 22.8 km one-way in a straight-line distance. Thanks to modern vehicles that travel 50 km/hour or more, the average commute now takes 26.2 minutes.



  Note to readers

Cities and surrounding areas with 100,000 or more residents are known as census metropolitan areas or CMAs. CMAs are not equal in their size or their infrastructure. To establish some more comparability, six groupings are used in the charts and tables of this release.

Largest CMAs are the three CMAs with the largest population (that is, Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver). They also have at least three types of public transit infrastructure (including bus and at least two of subway/elevated rail, street car/commuter train, and ferry).

Large CMAs are the five next-largest CMAs, all with at least one type of public transit infrastructure.

Greater Golden Horseshoe CMAs are eight CMAs in southern Ontario with public transit infrastructure and a moderate- to-strong commuting relationship with other nearby CMAs. These areas are part of Ontario's "Greater Golden Horseshoe."

Mid-sized CMAs are six CMAs with a population between 225,000 and 500,000 and are not part of the three groups listed above.

Small CMAs, commuting relationships with neighbours are four smaller CMAs with moderate commuting relationships with nearby communities.

Other small CMAs are the remaining nine smallest CMAs.

Also, CMA data presented for 1996 are adjusted to 2016 CMA geographic boundaries.

2016 Census of Population products and releases

Today, Statistics Canada is releasing the sixth set of results from the 2016 Census of Population. These results focus on education, labour, journey to work and language of work in 2016 at the national, provincial, territorial and sub-provincial levels.

Several 2016 Census products are also available today on the Census Program web module. This module has been designed to provide easy access to census data, free of charge. Information is organized into broad categories, including analytical products, data products, reference materials, geography and a video centre.

Analytical products include one article from the Census in Brief series. This article provides analyses focusing on the use of sustainable transportation in Canada's census metropolitan areas.

Data products include the journey to work results for a wide range of standard geographic areas, available through the Census Profile and Data Tables.

In addition, the Focus on Geography Series provides data and highlights on key topics found in this Daily release and in the Census in Brief article at various levels of geography.

Reference materials contain information to help understand census data. They include the Guide to the Census of Population, 2016, which summarizes key aspects of the census, as well as response rates and other data quality information. They also include the Dictionary, Census of Population, 2016, which defines census concepts and variables, and the Journey to Work Reference Guide, which explains census concepts and changes made to the 2016 Census. This reference guide also includes information about data quality and historical comparability, and comparisons with other data sources. Both the Dictionary and the Guide to the Census of Population are updated with additional information throughout the release cycle.

Geography-related 2016 Census Program products and services can be found under Geography. These include GeoSearch, an interactive mapping tool.

An infographic entitled Journey to work illustrates some key findings, including main modes of commuting and commuting time in Canada and the largest census metropolitan areas.

The public is also invited to chat with our experts on this topic.

November 29, 2017 marks the final major release from the 2016 Census of Population. Please see the 2016 Census Program release schedule for a full list of the topics that have already been released.

As well, consult the Census Program web module over the coming months for the release of additional data products providing an even more comprehensive picture of the Canadian population.

Contact information

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; STATCAN.infostats-infostats.STATCAN@canada.ca) or Media Relations (613-951-4636; STATCAN.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.STATCAN@canada.ca).

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