Long commutes ruining your day? How do the parties’ transit plans stack up?
When Amanda Bernardo moved to the suburbs of Ottawa, she began riding the bus to her office downtown because it was cheaper and better for the environment.
But after a year, Bernardo says she’s fed up with what she sees as inadequate community bus service. It sometimes takes her as long as two hours to get downtown, she says, and inaccurate scheduling makes it difficult to get to work on time.
“I started to face a lot of challenges, whether it was delays or struggle to actually catch a bus,” said Bernardo.
Bernardo is one of nearly 900,000 Ontarians and two million Canadians who commute to work on public transit. That’s more transit riders than ever before, Statistics Canada says. And while that may seem like positive news for the environment and improving traffic gridlock, other numbers from the 2016 census paint a much dimmer picture.
The data shows that, as the populations of cities and their surrounding areas continue to climb, traffic congestion is increasing, making more residents’ commutes long like Bernardo’s. A trip to work on public transit – widely perceived as key to getting more cars off the roads – is, on average, the slowest of them all.
How are Ontarians commuting to work and how long does it take?
The majority of Ontarians commute to work by car – roughly 78 per cent – according to Statistics Canada data.
In Toronto, a quarter of the workforce takes public transit to the office, while 18 per cent of commuters in the Ottawa-Gatineau area ride the bus or train.
This figure drops significantly in smaller cities. In Hamilton, Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, London, Guelph and Kingston, the number ranges from six to 10 per cent.
When it comes to how long it takes, the 2016 census data is clear – commutes to work are getting longer, and the average commute in Ontario was longer than any other province or territory.
The average commute to work by car in the province took just over 26 minutes; by public transit, 48 minutes; and by light rail, streetcar or commuter train, 60 minutes.
But those are just the averages. Approximately 40 per cent of GTA and Hamilton public transit users spend more than an hour on the road getting to the office. In Ottawa, Guelph and Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, it’s nearly 25 per cent – and in London, 18 per cent.
What impact do congestion and inefficient public transit have on society?
Extensive commutes make for a “very long day,” Bernardo said.
“I’m spending about two, two and a half hours a day commuting which is time that I could be doing other things,” she said.
A 2014 report commissioned by the Ontario Trillium Foundation determined long commutes and bad traffic have “a negative effect” on Ontarians’ health because they “reduce the time people have for family, for leisure, and for their communities” and they increase stress and anxiety.
While building transit infrastructure costs billions of dollars, Benjamin Dachis, associate director of research at the C.D. Howe Institute, says doing nothing also comes with a steep price tag. He calculated the GTA economy loses about $13 billion dollars a year because of terrible congestion.
That research, however, was published five years ago and based on an analysis of data from the late 2000s; Dachis said the cost of congestion would have “unquestionably” grown worse since then.
What are the biggest gaps in Ontario’s local transit systems right now?
Experts have long argued that investments in public transit in Ontario has not kept pace with the province’s population growth.
Richard Florida, an urbanist and professor at the University of Toronto, cited scarce ‘mass transit’ – including subways, light rail and buses – as a major issue in some cities. Toronto’s downtown subways, right now suffocating from overcrowding, are an example, he says.
People like Bernardo, who moved outside the city centre because housing is cheaper, say there aren’t enough buses to accommodate growing ridership in those areas and residents experience extremely long commutes.
Dachis also sees problems with the approach to financing transit projects. While the Ontario Liberals have thrown billions of dollars towards new transit projects and infrastructure upgrades since 2003 – over $29.2 billion in total, according to the ministry of transportation – those investments haven’t done much to reduce congestion and improve commutes, Dachis argues.
So what will fix our congestion and transit problems?
Both Florida and Dachis say Ontario needs to ramp up its investments in transit. They also agree the province’s strategy has to go beyond promises to spend more cash.
The two experts argue that raising extra revenue to pay for more transit has to be part of the plan – and that implementing road tolls is the way to go.
“Just the way people pay to take transit, or pay to take a plane or a train, we have to pay to use the roads,” Florida said. “Except among certain politicians, there’s now universal agreement among everyone who studies the subject is that the best … first step we can take is to make people pay for the roads they use.”
Dachis says road pricing is also “easily the best solution” for reducing congestion. But he’s in favour of tolling only the inside lane of a highway’ for people who are “really in a hurry.”
Ontario has also been making major investments in LRT networks in a number of cities, including Toronto, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo. Florida said LRT will make a difference in Ontario but it’s just one piece of the puzzle – Ontario should also keep investing in buses, subways and even ride sharing technology.
“I think the solution is bigger than any one silver bullet,” Florida said. “It’s really building a mobility solution that works for us.”
Experts support road tolls… but do Ontarians?
A new Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News suggests there’s support in the province for such a measure – but that support lies predominantly in the GTA.
According to the poll, in which 841 people were surveyed online between May 25 and 27, just under half of GTA residents reported they support building more toll roads in Ontario to “help pay for more roads and transit.” Meanwhile, 46 per cent of that same group said they support paying higher taxes in order to “invest in more public transit” within their communities.
WATCH: Experts support road tolls, but do Ontarians?
“When compared to the rest of Ontarians, 416 residents are more invested in transit plans for their community, while the lack of support from the rest of the province suggests that many don’t want to directly pay for improvements to transit and other transportation infrastructure,” the poll said.
The poll also suggested 67 per cent of GTA residents support a provincial subsidy for the Toronto Transit Commission.
Support for such measures also changes across party lines, with Liberal voters “more likely to support transit and transportation investment” and PC voters “more likely to oppose.”
Where do the parties stand?
The Liberals, PCs, NDP and Greens have all made big promises on transit, including higher transit-specific investments across the board.
But Mike Schreiner’s Green party appears to be the only one that has provided details about how it would raise new money to fund transit. The Greens’ platform says the party would implement new revenue tools like “congestion charges, parking levies and land value taxes … to raise over $3.9 billion per year.”
Dachis suggested he would like to see more comprehensive strategies than what’s been presented.
“What we’re seeing from all the parties is very much the same, which is throw more provincial money at the problem,” he said. “Whether it’s grants for infrastructure or operating grants, none of this really solves the core problem of congestion.”
The Liberal platform, largely inspired by the Wynne government’s 2018 budget, has promised investments of more than $106 billion on “new and upgraded transit and transportation infrastructure” over the next decade.
Kathleen Wynne also has committed to a number of regional and municipal transit projects in the GTA, Hamilton, Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Niagara and Bowmanville.
Meanwhile, the NDP under Andrea Horwath has pledged to restore provincial funding for municipal transit operations to 50 per cent (the Greens have vowed to do the same).
The NDP platform says doing this would support investments upwards of $800 million in local transit every year – more than 40 per cent of which would go to Toronto.
PC Leader Doug Ford has not released a fully costed platform – but his transit-related announcements have vowed to support two-way all-day GO Transit service to Niagara; the second phase of the Ottawa LRT; and regional transit projects in Mississauga, Brampton, Hamilton, London and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Ford has also pledged an additional $5 billion for Toronto’s subways.
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