Monday 14 May 2012

Average commute lengths in Toronto, Canada

Someone recently posted a comment on one of the posts on this blog in which he asserted that an average commute in Toronto was of the order of 25 km - 50 km each way.

Like any extraordinary claim, this immediately raised a flag. Average commutes in other places are much shorter than this, and it seemed so unlikely that Toronto should have commutes which were so much longer than everywhere else on earth. I looked it up and found a very interesting website about commuting statistics in Canada.

These are not cycling statistics, but
average commute lengths in Canada
for all modes of transport. Why don't
Canadians make even their short
journeys by bike? Because it's
Dangerous. In the Netherlands
journeys of the same lengths are
routinely made by bike.
It turns out that Toronto does indeed have the longest commutes in Canada, but the average length is just 9.2 km. This is much shorter than suggested in the comment. The national average is 7.2 km, which is much the same figure as you'll find anywhere in the world.

The same website also reveals that for the whole of Canada, 37.8% of commutes are over a distance of 5 km or less.

Five km is a distance very easily covered by bike, but is that how Canadians make their short journeys ? It turns out that they do not. Ottawa is the leading large city in Canada for both walking and cycling, yet walking accounts for just 7.5% of commutes and cycling for just 2%.

So if distances are not the problem, why do Canadians not use bicycles when their journey distances are short ?

The reasons are the same in Canada as in every other country where few people cycle. The conditions that (potential) cyclists face are simply not conducive to cycling. There is little specifically designed infrastructure and cycling is considered to be like an extreme sport.

Those who choose to cycle in Toronto and across Canada are "road warriors". i.e. they are members of that demographic who are most easy to convince to ride, largely young adults, predominantly male and without dependents. There is not the same wide range of demographic groups as you get with a successful and established cycling culture. As with many other cities around the world, some pockets of Toronto have a higher cycling modal share than others due to specific demographics, but the overall rate of cycling is low. Sadly, the mayor of the city has also recently been taking part in a well publicized "war on bikes" - another thing which makes the background such that cycling is unlikely to flourish.

Distance is an easy reason to give for why the cycling modal share is low, but just as in other places where this excuse is made, a little investigation shows that distances are not the problem in Toronto. In fact, none of the popular reasons given for low cycling modal shares ever really add up. Rather, for cycling to become popular, a good degree of subjective safety is needed, and cycling must be associated with a high degree of convenience and safety. That is the biggest difference between the Netherlands and other countries. We have many examples of what works.

It's the same story in other countries where claims are made that distances are "too long", including the USA. However, the reasons are the same too. Where there is inadequate subjective and social safety, few people cycle. Read previous posts about Canada for some of the reasons why.


Zmapper said...

Distance isn't really a problem for someone on a bike, because they don't have to bike the whole distance. Perhaps someone might bike 2 miles to the train station then ride the train 20 miles.

On a side note, Transit in Toronto is insanely good by any standards, which may eat into bicycle mode share. Seriously, how many bus routes do you know that have a bus come by every 3 minutes at 3pm, let alone 3am!

Koen said...

I saw the video of the Toronto Mayor on cyclists. Shocking!!! But instead of getting angry at him, and keeping the 'them vs us' thinking going, I think we'd better invite him for a cycling holiday in the Netherlands. I for one have always liked constructive solutions. (, perhaps it DOES all start with education, after all...)

David Hembrow said...

Koen: No anger here, and we're always constructive. IMO, the Mayor doesn't need a holiday, he needs a study tour specifically designed to give him that much needed education.

Derek Kraan said...

Some downtown neighbourhoods in Toronto have bicycle commuting rates in the teens. This seems to corroborate your claim that people don't bike because of lack of infrastructure (rather than the usual "it's too cold" or "it's too hilly").

Koen said...

David: Of course you always are constructive, I noticed from reading all of your posts. My comment was more about the people who like to think in terms of battle and opposition than of taking things a notch higher. Personally, I think the mayor could learn a lot from you in this respect.
Many people may say Assen is too much unlike large metropolitan cities, though. Perhaps you should take him to Rotterdam as well?
I said 'holiday' instead of 'study tour' on purpose, because the man looks like he could do with some relaxed countryside cycling. Thanks for opening the discussion!

David Hembrow said...

Derek: I suspect the downtown neighbourhoods will have other things which boost the cycling modal share too, such as a relatively high number of students or young adults, for instance (also seen in Cambridge, Copenhagen and the youngest city in the Netherlands, Groningen).

Koen: Assen is indeed quite small. However, it's a very good place to demonstrate principles because the infrastructure is to a good standard here (better than average even for the Netherlands), we've a bit of everything to show, and it's all within a relatively short distance which makes it possible to cycle between a lot of different types of infrastructure and see how it fits together. One day of our tour is spent in Groningen, which is considerably more of a "busy city" than Assen, and there you see how it works with a higher density. I wouldn't recommend Rotterdam because that city lags behind the best. There is not much point in dwelling too much on less than ideal solutions.

As for the holiday idea, we could easily accommodate your mayor for some nice relaxed riding as well...

Wilma Flanagan said...

I just returned from a weekend at a cycling event in Montana, which was attended by the "Road Warriors," and I have to say that I did not find them to be young males. Over half were males, but there were many women as well. What really struck me was how old we were as a group. There were no children, and very few riders in their twenties. Most were over forty, with many, like me, well past fifty.

I wonder if part of the problem is that young families, with parents in their 30's and 40's are so busy with over-scheduled children, that they do not feel able to take the extra time that is needed to do even the short commutes.

I can drive to my work locations in 10, 15 and 20 minutes. Those same commutes, by bike, take me 25, 65 and 75 minutes. (I know because I do commute by bike) My other issue is my employer's lack of willingness to provide me a secure place to keep my bicycle during work, or a place where I can freshen up after riding for more than an hour! Besides poor infrastructure, this is a real deterrent!

Anonymous said...

Growing up in TO and living in Ottawa for 8 years, I'd say a significant barrier is 6 months of snow, slush and very cold uncomfortable weather. Few roads are cleared to bare road surface, and few bikes equipped to travel safely in snow and salt-slush.

I was a regular bike commuter in central Ottawa, and Ottawa does support a fair bit of cycle infrastructure. But the bike was stored from Oct-April, or March if lucky.

I could dress to walk in comfort in -20 C or colder in Ottawa (not unusual for most of Jan-Feb), but I could not dress to protect myself to cycle in those conditions, with wind chill added.

Added to this are the suburban 'bedroom communities' around both TO and Ottawa, where many people live outside the cities proper. The connections between them are car-and-bus oriented, rather than cycle-enabled.

The Toronto mayor fails on so many levels it's hard to pick one flaw alone...

David Hembrow said...

Wilma: I think you do have a point about young parents. It's one thing to "take a risk" and cycle yourself, but quite another to take a child with you.

One of the great things about the freedom that children have in the Netherlands is that parents don't have to work as unpaid taxi drivers.

Anonymous: It got very close to -20 C here too this winter. People keep cycling, and they make extra journeys by bike to go skating. At -8 C it's quite normal for children to continue to cycle to school.

To be fair, unlike some other places where people use the same argument, Ottawa genuinely is somewhat colder on average than Assen during the winter. However, cold temperatures in the winter are not the reason why Ottawans don't cycle much in spring, summer and autumn.

Anonymous said...

re: Anonymous' comments

To those who do not live here in the Toronto area, Anonymous is misleading you. This winter there were only 6 days with significant snow falls that resulted in roads being snowy. Anonymous is putting forth an argument from back in the 1800's, but has no reflection in modern reality. Even my wife who is a fair weather cyclist was commenting on how she should have ridden though this winter it was so mild.

The other confusion here is the average commuting distance. While the average might me around 10kms, for a very significant number of people that commute is between 30 and 100 kms each way.

As an avid bike commuter myself, the arguments David is putting forward are correct. The main reason for a lack of commuting is a lack of subjective safety. The is also a very strong bias against cycling...its for poor people or is a sport for rich gear heads. but weather is not a reason not to ride the bike.

Kevin Love said...

Scarcely "pockets." Unless you want to consider Toronto's city centre to be one big "pocket."

Here is a map of Active Transportation (walking and cycling) use broken down by Riding in Toronto. Note how the downtown is high and it reduces as we go out into the suburbs.

Although I will accept the "pocket" description for the Toronto Islands, North America's largest urban car-free zone. Which is such a desirable place to live that last year the City conducted a lottery to be added onto the end of a 15-year waiting list for City-owned rental housing in the car-free zone. The lottery was necessary because over 10 people applied for every place available at the bottom of the waiting list. And they plunked down $100 each to enter the lottery.

Kevin Love said...


Which video would that be? This one, in which he blames the victims?

Or perhaps this one, in which he calls cyclists "a pain in the ass"?

Both videos are from formal addresses to Toronto City Council. Also available are videos in which he describes why he despises homosexuals, immigrants (except Chinese, who "work like dogs"), labour union members and all the other people that a true right-wing kook needs to hate.

Hobbes vs Boyle said...

@David: I currently live in Montreal, which is certainly a bit of an exception in terms of cycling infrastructure in North America. When it comes to winter, however, the numbers of cyclists do drop off sharply and that's only partly because of the temperatures: A vast majority of bike paths and lanes are closed from October or November until April -- no matter if the weather actually warrants it or not. So even on a mild day (of which there usually are some) a lot of people will not bike because they have no way to get to work without biking on busy streets without bike infrastructure. It's especially bad if you live off the island, as all of the bridges are closed off for cyclists (There have been campaigns to change this but so far they haven't been successful.) Unfortunately, it's a vicious circle: since "nobody rides in the winter" there's no need to keep the bike infrastructure open year-round. And vice versa.

I'm wondering: do you or anyone else know anything about snow removal on narrow bridge paths? Part of the argument about why the Jacques-Cartier Bridge can't be kept open is because it is claimed that you can't remove the snow from the path. This is what the path looks like and it's several kilometers long. Pushing the snow into the river is not an option, and I can understand how taking the snow off the bridge can be a problem.

Derek Kraan said...

Hobbes vs Boyle: Something like this?

(found here:

David Hembrow said...

Hobbes vs Boyle: I don't see any reason why clearing the cycle path is a bigger problem than clearing the road. Just use the same equipment in the same way. That's what they do here.

There are plenty of examples on this blog of machines which sweep ice and snow from cycle paths. e.g. here and here, and you can see the route that sweeps and gritters take here.

Merlin said...

Regarding the cold weather in Canada:

Despite what many people think, including the anonymous commenter above from Toronto and Ottawa, it is possible to dress for the cold, though it certainly is more involved than just putting on a coat and gloves. I have cycled exclusively through two winters in Winnipeg, which is significantly colder than either Toronto or Ottawa, and seems to have a snow-clearing policy of "we'll get around to it eventually" (though we don't get as much snow as Toronto or Ottawa in a typical winter). I've been out on a bakfiets, with my two children when it was -35C, and none of us felt cold (balaclava, ski goggles, and pogies required).

On a less happy note, Manitoba is just now passing legislation requiring cycle helmets for children. The uncritical reporting of this story in our local news has resulted in a sudden outburst of people on the road verbally harassing me about the fact that I choose not to wear one (or put them on the heads of my kids). Yesterday, the driver of a minivan executed an unnecessarily dangerous manouver in order to roll down his window and hurl insults at me. Of course, though there are not a large number of cyclist deaths or injuries on Manitoba roads (largely due to extremely small modal share), the legislature has chosen to address the "problem" by forcing cyclists to wear helmets, but they have so far refused to define a safe passing margin for motorists, and their attempts at cycling infrastructure have been truly pathetic. It's pretty clear where we stand.

I keep dreaming of my wife getting a faculty position at the University of Groningen...

Multiparty Democracy Today said...

Thankfully we got rid of Rob Ford, who is often considered an idiot by many. Apparently, my dad's commute would be below average, less than 7 km. He does have to take my younger brother to school, but the school is not that far away from my dad's employment, and my brother is 13. He's ridden bicycles before, and the not great but also not terrible shared use paths do link all the arterial roads between my house and both my brother's school which is 9 km away from home and my dad's workplace. The main thing that causes a problem are the stop signs and traffic lights.