Why an economist picked Kamloops over Vancouver. Hint: it has to do with the commute

TICKET TO RIDE | By moving to Kamloops, Joel Wood traded a 75-minute commute for a 15-minute bike ride

How communities such as Kamloops are attracting a new generation of worker: with economic opportunities minus the commuting chaos

An average morning for Joel Wood used to begin with a 20-minute drive from his Langley home. He would arrive at a park-and-ride in South Surrey, board a bus to a Canada Line station, then take a train into Vancouver. From there, it was just one more bus ride to his job as assistant director of the Centre for Environmental Studies at the Fraser Institute in Kitsilano. At the end of the day, he would do it all again in reverse—a total commute time of 75 minutes each way, or about two and a half hours per day. He would spend 50 hours each month in his car, buses and trains—the equivalent of working more than three extra months per year. “It was pretty taxing,” says the 34-year-old father of one (soon to be two). “You’re away from family, away from small children, away from your partner.”

After three years of slogging from Langley to Kitsilano and back, Wood started to look for work in smaller cities; his wife is from a small town and they both pined for a slower pace of living. In April 2014, he accepted a new job in Kamloops, teaching economics at Thompson Rivers University’s School of Business and Economics. Thinking back to the last days of his long daily trip, Wood can only recall the exhaustion he felt—and the anticipation of his new lifestyle. “I was ecstatic at the opportunity to live closer to work,” he says.

The average Canadian takes 25 minutes to get to work each morning, according to Statistics Canada—but for those living in Canada’s largest cities, it’s often two or three times as much. Commuting time has become a serious consideration for young professionals deciding where to put down roots. Some companies—especially in traffic-plagued Silicon Valley—now offer cash incentives for employees to live close to work, while others are relocating from suburban industrial parks to the urban centres where their workers reside. In Vancouver, Microsoft has recently expanded its downtown location, adding 400 new jobs in the city core—a departure for a company whose employees make up half the population of Redmond, the Seattle suburb where it’s headquartered.

Beyond corporate efforts, governments and transit authorities are also attempting to reduce commute times through planning and infrastructure initiatives. The City of Vancouver has had perhaps the most success to date, reducing the number of car trips within the city by 10 per cent since 1994; now half the trips made in Vancouver are by bike, walking or transit. By encouraging condo developments to include less parking, supporting car-share services and building more bike lanes, the city aims to cut car trips down to one in three by 2040. Similar efforts are underway in Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond, but in the wake of the Lower Mainland’s failed transit plebiscite, progress on commute times is far from certain. 

Even outside the big cities, congestion and commute times have become an issue. In Wood’s new hometown, Kamloops city planners have seen some success with their TravelSmart program, which has pushed city growth in areas that would be better served by transit, made cycling easier with more bike routes and bike racks on buses, and encouraged employers to help their workers carpool or work outside of the nine-to-five workday. Indeed, Kamloops traffic and transportation engineer Elnaz Ansari says that it still only takes 20 minutes to get from one end of town to the other even after a decade of growth.

As for Wood, 18 months into his new life, he seems to have found a perfect balance in the city of 85,000. “We really wanted to move to a smaller, closer-knit community,” he says when reached at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, playing with his young daughter at a local park. “There are tons of family-oriented events and activities here.”

At his new job, the pay is about the same, but each morning he gets to feel the wind on his face during a 15-minute bike ride to work. The commute is a fraction of what he endured while living in the Lower Mainland—hours a week that Wood really values. “It’s time that I get to be home with my family.”