Public transit, suburban travel redefine Montreal's typical commute

Statistics Canada research shows significant changes in how Montrealers commute. The changes are part of a trend in all of Canada's major metropolitan areas that has seen populations and jobs growing faster outside city centres.

Growing number of metropolitan residents neither live nor work in the centre of the city

Use of public transit to get to work in Montreal's city core rose from 38 per cent to 55 per cent between 1996 and 2016. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A classic example of a metropolitan Montreal commuter might involve someone travelling in their car from a suburb like Pierrefonds or Brossard to their job downtown. But this is wrong — in two ways.

Research from Statistics Canada shows that most people who travel to work in Montreal's city centre now take public transit. And it also shows that the traditional model of commuting from suburb to centre no longer fits: a majority of people in Montreal neither live nor work in the city centre.

"In most Canadian cities, the proportion of people working in the city core has decreased while those working outside the core has increased," said Katherine Savage, an analyst at Statistics Canada who wrote a report based on data from the 1996 and 2016 censuses

"We see the same trend for residence selection."

The number of people using cars to get to work in Montreal's central core dropped substantially between 1996 and 2016, replaced by nearly the same number of commuters using public transit, the Statistics Canada research shows.

In the 20-year period, the number of people taking a car to work each day in Montreal's city core, which Statistics Canada defines as the area within a five-kilometre radius of city hall, dropped by 62,900, while the number taking public transit increased by 58,100.

"The proportion of traditional commuters taking public transit is increasing," Savage said. "We saw an increase in many of Canada's largest cities, but the largest was in Montreal."

The changes are also part of a trend in all of Canada's major metropolitan areas where populations and jobs are growing faster outside city centres.

Savage noted that car use remains dominant, but "year over year, car use is declining and public transit is on the rise."

Statistics Canada defines traditional commuters as people who travel from areas outside the city core to jobs in the city core. In Montreal, the proportion of those commuters taking public transit rose from 38 per cent in 1996 to 54 per cent in 2016.

The number of people taking a car to work each day in Montreal's city core dropped by 62,900 between 1996 and 2016. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

But the decentralization trend also means the notion of a traditional commuter is being turned on its head. Within that 20-year timeframe, the number of jobs in the city core increased by 11,200. But the number outside that radius rose by much more — 132,500. 

"The number of people who live and work in the city core has decreased," Savage said of Montrealers. "We've seen an increase in all other types of commuting."

In fact, a majority of people who live in the metropolitan Montreal area neither live nor work in the city core.

Commuting from one suburb to another

Boer Cui, a graduate research assistant in civil engineering at McGill University, said the growth of inter-suburban commuting suggests cities need to reconsider its public transit priorities.

"There are so many people travelling from one suburb to another," Cui said. "The projects we should be investing in and prioritizing are the ones that address this. Especially because most people are driving."

The Quebec government announced funding last week to study public transit options along the east-west axis of the South Shore, which Cui says is a positive step.

"Originally we focused on how do we make city centres nicer, more walkable, more livable," Cui said.

"But the suburb is where we need to focus our attention. We do need something on the South Shore. We do need axes connecting these places."

A network of commuter trains bring those living in the Montreal metropolitan area to downtown. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

That trend of higher job growth outside the city centre is seen in Canada's eight largest census metropolitan areas. As is a decline in the number of people living and working in city centres.

In 2016, there were roughly half as many people living and working in Montreal's city core as there were in 1996 — 111,500 versus 212,000, a drop of 47.4 per cent. At the same time, the number of traditional commuters grew to 347,800 from 236,100, an increase of 47.3 per cent.

This doesn't mean Montreal's central population has declined, just that the location where many centre-city dwellers work has changed. In 2016, some 62,500 engaged in reverse commutes, travelling from their homes in the city core to a place of work outside of it, an increase of 48.8 per cent since 1996.


John MacFarlane


John MacFarlane is a journalist at CBC Montreal. He also works as a filmmaker and producer.


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