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StatsCan study shows Canadian commute times are getting longer — and it's costing us

New numbers from Statistics Canada show an increasing number of Canadians take an hour or more to get to work. Research suggests that's not just bad for our health, but for our wallets, too.

U of T professor says there's an economic value in actual travel time

The Statistics Canada study reported that the number of workers with a long commute travelling at least 60 minutes or more increased by nearly five per cent since 2011. (CBC)

For the past 15 years, Annie Crombie has commuted by car every day from Val-des-Monts, Que., to downtown Ottawa.

Crombie, who founded her own consulting business, said it took her more than an hour to get to her office in Ottawa's ByWard Market.

"I did the commute for a really long time," Crombie said. "It definitely did have a negative impact overall in terms of productivity, and there's a time loss."

She often ended up working at home in the evenings to make up time she'd lost to the commute. 

Her long commute was a huge part of her family's decision to change their lifestyle and move to Ottawa last fall.

Crombie is just one of many Canadians who have spent countless hours behind the wheel to get to work. 

Annie Crombie commuted by car every day for the last 15 years. (Submitted by Annie Crombie)

According to a new Statistics Canada study based on census data, in 2016 a total of 1.5 million Canadians spent at least 60 minutes commuting to work, which the study defines as a long commute. Among those people, 57 per cent commuted by car.

The number of workers with a long commute increased by nearly five per cent since 2011.

Eric Miller, professor and director of the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute, says there is an economic value in actual travel time.

"When we're assessing different transportation policies, we look at the time people spend commuting," Miller said. "We attach a value of time to that or an estimate of how people value their time because they're always trading time and money off."

Using the average Canadian hourly rate of $27.36 that Statistics Canada estimates in its Labour Force Survey, a commuting time to work of one hour each way means a cost per week of about $273.

But the real economic cost comes from congestion, which Miller says makes everything less efficient. This affects those stuck in their cars attempting to get to work on time. It also slows truck drivers, making it longer for them to deliver goods and services. 

Out of the 854,000 Canadians with long commutes by car, 42 per cent left the house between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., and 21 per cent carpooled to work.

Travelling from suburb to suburb

But long commutes aren't just a problem for drivers. According to the data agency, even 30 per cent of public transit users spend at least an hour commuting. 

While public transit may be an option for those commuting from the suburbs to the downtown core, for some Canadians commuting by car is necessary.

University of Toronto professor Eric Miller says there's an economic price to be paid for all those hours we spend sitting in traffic. (Submitted by Eric Miller)

Miller said there aren't many options for those commuting from suburb to suburb.

"It's almost completely car based because that's not a pattern that can be well served by transit," Miller said.

Natasha Wiseman commutes to Thornhill, Ont., from Barrie, Ont. Her commute to work takes about an hour every morning.

The Statistics Canada study found that Barrie residents had the highest proportion of long commutes by car in 2016.

On Feb. 25, Wiseman was involved in a pileup on Highway 400 near Barrie amid whiteout conditions.  

She's now thinking about alternatives. Her main concern is her safety, as opposed to the time it takes her to get to and from work. 

"I never had the fear of travelling on the 400 until that happened," Wiseman said. "Just travelling on the 400 itself has made me nervous and kind of rethink things."

Wiseman said she has considered taking transit in the past. But the GO Transit train did not save her time or money. Once she gets to the station she would have to take additional public transportation to get to her office.

Loss of personal time

Although a long commute can affect a person financially, it can also impact overall well-being.

Clare Kumar, a productivity coach based in Toronto, says some people can integrate their commute in their lives very well, while others cannot.

Clare Kumar is a Toronto-based productivity coach who says long commutes can trigger health problems in some people. (Submitted by Clare Kumar)

"It's a chronic stress for a lot of people and that definitely triggers health issues," Kumar said. "It's worth really thinking about making sure you've got the right construct for work and life integration."

One of the biggest challenges of a long commute is the loss of personal time, according to Kumar.

"Commute has to be part of the work experience time," she said. "If you can't use it for work, we're challenged now in terms of how much time we can devote to personal care, relationships and connecting."

She says losing time to a commute can affect nutrition, hydration, amount of exercise and access to light. She recommends transit commuters get off a stop or two early and walk in the sunlight. 

For Crombie, there were dollars and cents issues, as well as the stress of juggling commuting.

When her husband began commuting to Ottawa as well, they had to take two separate cars due to their different schedules, and their bill for gasoline was getting expensive. Parking cost them about $500 per month in the city.

Not only was she commuting to work but she would often have to drive her kids to various activities in downtown Ottawa, sometimes grabbing a quick bite of dinner along the way.

"We would either drive all the way back home and then you'd drive back into the city or you end up just eating on the go." Crombie said. "It just wasn't feasible to get home first and then get back into the city."

Eventually, the family decided to make a change and about five months ago, they started renting a townhouse in Ottawa. She now works from home.  

"We've been getting really tired of the commute," Crombie said. "It was taking up a lot of time."

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