Why the car is winning the commuter war—and what can be done to stop it

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DOUBLE COMMUTE | The Chmeliks were dedicated transit users until they moved from Vancouver to more affordable Surrey. Now they have two cars

Billions have been spent on new transit lines, better bike lanes and more walkable communities…and yet we refuse to give up our wheels. And nowhere is that more true than in the suburbs of the Lower Mainland

Clayton Chmelik and his wife were poster children for the car-shunning millennial generation for most of their 20s. They lived in south Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood and both took buses almost everywhere—first to university, then to their practicums and jobs. They didn’t own a car and didn’t feel deprived.

Now 33, Chmelik, a health manager at a Richmond company, has two cars in his family. He commutes 40 minutes a day each way in his Mazda 3 from his townhouse in Surrey, while his wife has her own car, a Mazda 5, that she’ll be using to commute to her counselling job when her maternity leave for their second child ends later this year. He estimates it costs them at least $700 a month to run both vehicles, not counting the $10,000 apiece the cars cost to buy. He knows it’s a lot. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it.”

But he feels like he doesn’t have a choice. First, TransLink eliminated the B-line bus along Granville when the Canada Line opened and transformed his 10-minute commute to Richmond into a 40-minute, two-transfer one. Then, when he and his wife decided to buy a home, a modest townhouse in South Surrey was all they could afford. That new location made transit even more unrealistic.

Chmelik is not an outlier. As the people born between 1980 and 2000 move into their household-forming, baby-having years, those who study how cities work are floating the idea that North America may have reached “peak millennial.” American demographer Dowell Myers has generated a little dust storm of media coverage the last few months with that very idea, warning that the members of this group—renowned for their love of urban living, craft breweries and alternative modes of transport—may undergo a significant shift in behaviour as they get older.

That could have a direct impact on commuting—a complex part of contemporary city life that affects everything from the economy to the environment to our emotional well-being. The economic factor is critical in Vancouver, which has to contend with an exceptionally challenging housing market. “If Vancouver wants to grow economically despite ballooning house prices, higher-density living will require more public transit—more capacity in Vancouver, more expansion geographically into suburban areas,” says Werner Antweiler, a UBC business professor whose research focuses on the connections between transit and the economy. “With denser public transit systems, workers gain time, which in turn can be used to produce more output at work and provide more services at home.”


Cities whose transportation arteries are clogged are heart attacks in the making, so it matters a lot whether millennials make a massive switch from transit to cars—or not. That’s just one of the factors that local transportation and city planners are assessing as they try to figure out how to shape future commuting. If Vancouver is really going to see a million more people by 2040—and a million more, then a million more, in future decades—it’s important to make sure the blood is flowing easily in those arteries. That means calculating in fine detail which combination of pushes and pulls will encourage people to alter the ways they move around.

In a survey done exclusively for BCBusiness by Insights West, it’s clear that people would like a different commuting life than the one they have now. More than three-quarters of those surveyed say living close to where they work is important and they’d work from home if they could to reduce their commutes. They also dream about other types of commuting: twice as many people in Metro Vancouver say they’d prefer to commute by bike as actually do.

The thing they’re not willing to do is pay the price to get there. The survey showed only a minority would accept less money for a job closer to home or would gladly pay tolls to produce a shorter commute. That was evident in the spectacular failure of the Lower Mainland plebiscite last year, where regional mayors proposed a $10-billion plan to improve transit (and even some roads and a bridge) if residents would agree to a half per cent sales tax. They said no by a two-to-one margin.

Except for residents of the principality of Vancouver—a little piece of Amsterdam dropped into our local equivalent of Los Angeles—the majority of people in the region are wedded to their wheels. Two-thirds of working adults in Metro Vancouver, outside the city proper, drive to work compared to less than a quarter in the city itself. According to TransLink, the percentage of Metro residents who commute in cars for all of their trips—work, school, shopping, entertainment—is 57 per cent, exactly where it was in 1994.

The car remains king, and nothing—not non-driving millennials, not transit additions (including the popular Canada Line), not bike lanes—has made a noticeable difference. The proportion of transit commuters has increased over the years, from a low of nine per cent in 2004 to the current 14 per cent. However, that appears to be at the expense of carpooling, which has declined as work schedules and commuting patterns have become more complicated.

The greatest achievement that transit nerds can point to is that the proportion of transit commuters has kept pace with the region’s growing population. But so have the numbers of cars and drivers. People in B.C. bought 77,000 cars in each of the last two years—that’s 13,000 more per year than the level in 2011. Total vehicle registrations in the province are now around 3.5 million, almost 800,000 more than in 2000—and nearly half, 1.5 million, are registered in the Lower Mainland.

Popular stories are often told about dramatic changes in people’s commuting behaviour—how everyone in Copenhagen switched from mostly cars to mostly bikes (approaching 50 per cent within the city) in the last 20 years as the city aggressively expanded cycling paths, or how commuting from Nanaimo to Vancouver by plane is now a thing. But the reality, say many transportation experts, is that commuting behaviour actually doesn’t shift that quickly. We have our preferred patterns and it takes a lot to dislodge us from them.

An Italian physicist, Cesare Marchetti, came up with the idea in the 1990s that humans have held to a total commute time of about an hour throughout history. That mental travel budget stays the same whether people are walking, on a donkey, in a BMW or travelling by bullet train. They’ll accept about 30 minutes each way and not much more, on average. A city that provides faster ways of travelling—a highway, a rapid-transit line—will find that it doesn’t shorten average commutes since many people will move out to the new 30-minute mark. According to the best commuting statistics for Metro Vancouver—TransLink’s 2011 trip diary—regional commuters travel an average of 13.2 kilometres to work*. National Household Survey statistics say those travellers clock in at an average of 28.4 minutes on their commutes. That hasn’t budged in years.

While travel behaviour is slow to change, it’s also getting a lot more complex. As the authors of the report Commuting in America, released in January 2015 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, put it: “The keys today are more disparate, with multiple factors at play. Instead of a single dominant pattern, demographic, technological, economic and cultural changes are interacting to push patterns in diverse directions—sometimes counteracting and sometimes reinforcing each other.”

Transportation planners aren’t just trying to figure out what the millennials (and subsequent generations) will do next. They’re also having to factor in the impact of boomers, who are working longer than expected because they are not as well off as they expected. Recessions and then recoveries. Two-career couples who have to negotiate the trade-offs for two commutes, not just one. Telecommuting and self-employment. Housing that cities allow to develop along transit lines (and thus encourage their use). Improvements to transit (or a lack thereof). The cost of gas and cars. And the changing patterns of city development and work location.

Those changing patterns are especially relevant in the Lower Mainland, where the emphasis on developing a regional plan with multiple town centres has produced a metropolitan region that’s distinct from Calgary or Seattle. In those cities, all the blood is sucked into the beating heart of downtown during the day and released at night. The Lower Mainland, by contrast, is increasingly polycentric—with transit patterns that look more like a bunch of chopsticks that fell on the floor than a simple conveyor belt. “Every municipality is trying to have a one-to-one ratio for jobs, but it creates a challenge when people are living in one suburb and working in another,” says Metro Vancouver board chair Greg Moore, who led the charge on the mayors’ transit plan. Even in the city of Vancouver, fully 39 per cent of residents commute out of the city to their jobs—including 30 per cent from that bastion of urban living, the West End.

While this kind of scattered commuting makes something like ride-sharing much more difficult, it can also help make the transit system more efficient since, if there are several town centres along one line, people are going both ways at rush hour. That means a road and transit network in the Lower Mainland can serve potentially twice as many people as in a region where the pattern is predominantly suburban-to-downtown. But a more efficient network alone won’t solve the region’s congestion woes.

According to Geoff Cross, TransLink’s director of strategic planning and policy, the average mileage in the region is currently 6,500 kilometres per person a year; the rejected transit plan aimed to bring that number down by a third, to about 4,400 kilometres—a difference of 2,100 kilometres per person per year. Making the big improvements to transit that were outlined in the plebiscite was only going to reduce the mileage by about 500. The next 1,600-kilometre reduction would only come from making it more expensive to drive—specifically through mobility pricing. Sophisticated mobility pricing, like the kind Singapore has, charges people based on how much they drive per year, how many bridges they cross and whether they make their trip during high-congestion periods. And neither will work alone. Both have to be in place to get the full reduction.

For the moment, however, those mechanisms are a long way off. Significant improvements to transit, even with the boost from the recent federal budget, won’t arrive for several years. And mobility pricing, something that the minister in charge of TransLink, Peter
Fassbender, has made favourable sounds about recently, would take at least five years to figure out how to make it work. In the meantime, many experts are pinning their hopes on plans that encourage people to live closer to wherever most of their trips are or that reorganize the usual patterns of neighbourhoods so that people’s “living maps” (where they work, shop and play) can be smaller.

Alfred Kee is someone whose life has changed because of those pushes and pulls. Kee, who grew up in south Vancouver, moved back to B.C. in April, after many years away, to take a job as a senior tech manager at Electronic Arts in Burnaby. He’d been living in a big house in the far-north Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill for five years and driving 40 kilometres to get to work, a commute that sometimes took two hours each way. He doesn’t even know how he ended up with that life. “My feeling is that a lot of this comes from societal pressure,” says the 43-year-old Kee. “But during the week, I wouldn’t see my daughter at all.”

In Vancouver, Kee and his wife, Nina, decided that life was too short to spend it in the car. They bought a townhouse in Burnaby, near Boundary Road, and Kee walks to work most days. Their decision was nudged by several factors. Kee had had to deal with congestion that was so terrible it prompted him to make a change. And he was able to make that change because there were lower-cost townhouses that he could afford close to where he works—townhouses that the City of Burnaby allowed to be built in an area once solely the domain of large-lot, single-family homes.

What TransLink planners see happening in the future is subtle shifts on a granular level that will produce more decisions like Alfred Kee’s, multiplied by thousands. Millennials may be particularly responsive to those shifts. In the Insights West survey, the one response that millennials gave that was markedly different from older groups was: “If I changed jobs and had a longer commute, I would seriously consider moving from my current home.”

TransLink currently analyzes the Lower Mainland by dividing it into about 1,700 “traffic analysis zones” or TAZs. In each zone, their model (based on the 2011 trip diary) tells them what proportion of people currently travel out of the zone regularly for work and what mode of commuting they use. It tells them how many parents are driving children to school and whether apartment dwellers or single-family-home owners are more likely to commute by walking. To a significant extent, those behaviours carry forward. If, for example, a little cell in Metrotown is split 30 per cent driving, 45 per cent transit, 20 per cent walking and five per cent cycling, more people who move into that little cell will adopt the same pattern.

Using such data, planners might encourage cities to put denser housing into the little TAZs where existing residents already have efficient commuting patterns—or find the cells where the greatest number of people are likely to shift away from driving and toward transit if service improves, and then improve service accordingly. The model also tells planners what is a waste of time—like putting a transit line next to a highway, which, at least for the moment, remains the fastest way from A to B.

Throughout all these deliberations, smart planners don’t have any delusion that they’ll get everyone out of their cars—even though some politicians, like the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, have thundered right-eously about the war on the car. “I worked in Copenhagen for a while,” says Geoff Cross, “and the idea there was just to keep the young people on transit for two or three years more. It’s the equivalent of a mode shift, even if they eventually go to a car.” Instead, they’re focused on those incremental changes that will nudge different categories of nudge-ready groups to make more efficient choices, be it moving closer to work, shopping or good transit.

Liz Carr is one of those who, while no longer close to work, has finally found the perfect commute. Carr, 48, grew up in Ottawa in a family that abhorred cars or suburban living requiring commutes. Her parents skated to work in the winter. When she moved to Vancouver, she could walk or bus to her jobs in the cultural sector downtown: “The idea of commuting for me was horrifying.” But then she and her husband, Dave Stephens, had a baby. Buying in Vancouver was out of the question so they now live in Port Coquitlam.

Carr wouldn’t even consider driving, so when she and her husband, who works from home doing post-production sound for TV and film, were house-hunting, they followed the transit route and chose a place close to the Port Coquitlam stop on the West Coast Express. Now she takes the train in every day. She’s figured out the tricks and become a regular. She has her own “seat” that her fellow commuters recognize as hers, and she’s learned which gate gets her out and to the bus loop the quickest. She actually likes her commute.

“I have a two-year-old, so my day doesn’t end when I get home. On the train, I listen to podcasts, read a book—do whatever I want. If they just had WiFi, it would be a party for tired middle-aged people. My commute is the best part of my day.”