4 things we learned about commuting in northern Ontario from the census

Latest numbers from the 2016 census show an overwhelming number of commuters in northern Ontario drive themselves to work and many travel more than hour before punching in.
Early morning commuters travel through Markstay on Highway 17 on their way into work in Greater Sudbury. (Erik White/CBC )

1. We get an early start

The census shows thousands of northerners are already on their way to work by 7 a.m. That includes about 20,000 people in Greater Sudbury or 27 per cent of the working population. The numbers are similar in other cities and towns such as Timmins and Cochrane. It goes up in the growing bedroom communities around Sudbury, with 38 per cent of French River leaving for work before 7 a.m. and 40 per cent in Markstay-Warren. 

While the census doesn't give any explanation as to why that might be, University of Western Ontario demographer Michael Hahn says many Canadians are moving further and further out of the cities where they work. 

"The urban sprawl that was a big concern in the '70s and '80s, it's alive and well in a lot of parts of Canada. Governments are going to have to think a little more seriously about trying to curtail this low density growth," he says. 

The 2016 census shows that 2,300 people in Greater Sudbury, including these commuters on Municipal Road 35 in Azilda, are on their way to work before 7 a.m. (Erik White/CBC)

2. We spent a lot of time behind the wheel

The 2016 census shows thousands of northerners are commuting more than an hour every day.

In Greater Sudbury, 2,300 people are in that category, only about 3 per cent of the population. But in the bedroom community of West Nipissing, 10 per cent drive more than an hour and 35 per cent are over 30 minutes.

In Markstay-Warren, 17 per cent of the rural community drives more than an hour before punching in and 71 per cent are over 30 minutes.

Dani Ellis, who moved to Markstay with her husband a few years back, is just under that, with a 25-minute commute into Sudbury to work in the film and television industry.

"Because a lot of us work in Sudbury, you don't see your neighbours a lot of the time. We almost always see each other in town, we almost never see each other in Markstay. It's kind of funny that way," says the 31-year-old.

The census shows that 10 per cent of people in West Nipissing drive more than hour to work and the number is 17 per cent in the nearby rural town of Markstay-Warren. (Erik White/CBC )

3. Small town commutes lengthy across northeastern Ontario

Even away from the suburbanization happening in the rural areas around the four major cities in the region, small northern communities are seeing lengthy commutes. In many cases, one-industry towns where many people walked to work are now seeing people travelling further and further to get a paycheque. In Iroquois Falls, where the paper mill closed two years ago, 13 per cent of the town drives more than an hour to work. It's 16 per cent in Smooth Rock Falls and 10 per cent in Cochrane. 

The census shows that only 315 people in Greater Sudbury use bike lanes, like this one along Bellevue Avenue in the Minnow Lake area, to get to work. (Erik White/CBC )

4. Only a small fraction aren't driving themselves to work

The latest numbers from the census show only a small fraction of Sudburians get to work on a bike.

Just 315 people reported that they commute by bicycle in Greater Sudbury.

This comes after a summer when the city spent millions of dollars on new bike lanes and other infrastructure, following nearly a decade of lobbying by sustainable mobility groups.

"How can you increase commuting cyclists if you have don't have any infrastructure?" says Daniel Barrette, the executive director of the Rainbow Routes Association, which builds trail in the city. 

"If there were no roads, there would be nobody driving. The same can be same to some extent of people cycling. With that increased infrastructure, we're bound to attract more people towards the bicycle as a means of commuting."

Sudbury actually trails behind other smaller cities when it comes to cycle commuting, with 265 biking to work in Sault Ste. Marie and 355 in North Bay.

Meanwhile, 3,315 Sudburians told the census that they walk to work, while 3.630 public transit.

Those numbers are virtually unchanged since the census last asked those questions in 2006.