Ottawa Commute Census Data Show Growth in Cycling Commute

Approaching a non signalised intersection
Approaching a non signalised intersection
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Recently, Statistics Canada released commuter data for 2016. Over the last 20 years, commuter trips grew considerably. That is not a surprise as the population grew, from 29.6 million in 1996 via 32.5 million in 2006 to 36.3 million in 2016. Yes, that is 7 million people extra in 20 years. This growth is about the equivalent of the entire population of Bulgaria. In other words, in twenty years we took in the equivalent of the population of an entire European country. And they move around.

But how did Ottawa fare in the ‘journey to work’ census? I put some cycling and walking numbers together and made some comparisons. Remember these are commuter data. There are all those other walks and bike rides, to school, to stores, to family, to museums and churches and festivals and tourists destinations. And then there are all those tours and races and rides. Commuting is just a sliver of the total number of movements.

growth in commute per mode in %
Growth in commute per mode in % since 1996 in Canada

Active Transportation

Around 1,100,000 Canadians walk and bike to work. But that is only 7% of the commuting population. Add in public transit, used by 12.4% of the commuters, and we are up to a total of 19.3% for Canada. Which means that 4 out of 5 Canadian commuters sit in a car. Of the 36.3 million Canadian residents, that is about 35% of the Canadian population.

Active Transportation top 10 in Canada

Ottawa is doing pretty well, with an active transportation commute ratio (9.6%) that is 50% higher than Canada’s average (6.9%). At the same time it is very hard to compare cities and we have to remind ourselves that these are only commuter trips. Weather, geography and density are factors and once you drill down on a very local level, the numbers can be off.

Canada’s and Ottawa-Gatineau Active Transportation and Public Transit in 2016

Note: The census showed no cyclists in our corner of Ottawa’s Fisher Heights neighbourhood of 170 commuters, although there are in fact 4 I know. The previous census mentions around 9% bike commutes in the same census district, but as far as I know there were no major changes in our five streets. On the other hand, other neighbourhoods might poll higher bike commuters numbers than there really are. On a city wide or metropolitan level this should even out. 

graph modal share
The 2016 Canada Commuter Active Transportation and Public Transit Modal Shares. The big three cities pass Ottawa due to larger percentages of public transit commuters. Ottawa has a larger active commute modal share though.

Surprise! Ottawa ahead of Vancouver and Montreal

In fact they are not even in the top 3 cycling commute cities (What are they thinking!), which is reserved for Victoria, Kelowna and Ottawa. Vancouver, with its bike image of people sweating up the Burrard bridge by the thousands, ends up with a miserable 2.3% bike commuter share, lower than Ottawa’s 2.5% bike commute modal share, despite Ottawa’s vast rural areas where cows and cornfields reign supreme. To be fair, the Canadian inner cities have much higher commute bike modal shares, hitting 10-15% in places.

Top 10 Canadian Cycling Commute
Top 10 Canadian cycling commute share of all commuters

In fact, when we look to the stats of active transportation, Victoria, Ottawa and Kingston bike and walk most as a percentage of commuters. Ottawa, the city that is blanketed by snow part of the year and who’se mayor visits more rural fairs than the mayors of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver combined, does have one of the top scores. Did the city that fun forgot quietly become more outdoorsy city than Vancouver, percentage wise?

Walking to work in Ottawa

Ten years ago, 31,650 Ottawans walked to work. Ten years later, that has grown to 33,223. That is an increase of 5% over ten years, which is not great. I am guessing that it is partly because growing suburbs are farther and farther from established work centres and you can only walk so much in a day.

How many people walked and cycled to work in 2016

Cycling to work in Ottawa

Just over 9100 Ottawa residents cycled to work in 2006. In 2016 that number increased to 11,698, an increase of 28.5% (or very roughly 2.5-3% a year).  I am happy to see that the increase but I had hoped it would be even more.

Adding this up, around 45,000 people walked and biked to work in Ottawa in 2016. I think the growing numbers justify further increased investments in active transportation. There is clearly a growing demand. My biased preference is to keep investing mostly in cycling (infrastructure, education, promotion), as cyclists can cover longer commute distances. On average they could do about 8 km in 30 minutes, whereas walking covers only 2.5 km in 30 minutes.

Car commutes in Ottawa

Let’s not kid ourselves though: unfortunately these numbers dwarf compared with car commuters. 467,940 Ottawans commuted to work in 2016; no less than 58.5% drive alone in the car. 194,395 Ottawa commuters use what Stats Canada lumps into “Sustainable Transportation”: car pool, public transit, walking. That is 41.5% in total, a good score for Canadian standards, after Toronto (42.5%) but before Vancouver (40.6%) and Montreal (38.1%). I am not sure if car pool can be considered “sustainable” though but if you live in a small town without a bus, it is the best option if you have to travel a considerable distance.

car modal commute share
Despite growth in other sectors, the commute by car is the most popular choice. that doesn’t mean everyone likes to take the car though; there might not be an alternative

Public Transit trailing

No less than 62,500 more commutes were taken by car then ten years ago in Ottawa (+26%), while public transit grew by 4750 only (or 5% compared with 10 years ago, but 6.6% down since 2011!). That is not good. Public transit annual trip numbers (all trips) have not been good. It is easy to ‘blame’ cycling as a reason for dropping public transit decline, but how about embracing cycling for the first and last mile instead? Which includes safe routes to and from stations. In the Netherlands, 50% of the train commuters arrive by bike. Something for OCTranspo to consider taking seriously.  I am hoping a recently announced injection of $30,000 in bike parking at bus stops will help OC Transpo’s struggle.

Now what?

The gut reaction among many of us is to build more roads and widen existing roads at great cost to all taxpayers. Remember Bob Chiarelli’s 6 km widening of the Queensway (twice 3 km) at a cost of 110 million dollars? Widening one major road like Anderson or Hunt Club easily surpasses 60 million dollars. O, and I just heard on the radio that a Kanata South road project is ‘secretly’ already 4 million dollars over an already 30 million dollars budget.

A rational reaction would be to improve a combination of walking, cycling and mass transit. The trick is to provide reliable and frequent bus rapid transit with safe walk and bike connections to and from stations in new suburbs, before people even consider buying a second car. Because once that second car is in the driveway, you miss the chance to sign up new customers. The challenge is to justify half empty buses in the first years of operation from those areas.

I am going to leave you with some quick info:

Cycling: 11,698 Ottawa residents cycled to work in 2016, up 28.5% since 2006

Walking: 33,223 Ottawa residents walked to work in 2016, up 5% since 2006

Transit: 91,716 Ottawa residents took public transit in 2016, up 4% since 2006 (but down 6.6% since 2011)

Driving alone: 273,744 Ottawa residents drive to work alone in a car in 2016, up 26% since 2006

Playing around with numbers is fun. I am hoping to do a few more posts in the future. I haven’t dug up all data yet. Let me know if you see anomalies.  I have been taking data from several different StatsCanada web pages, so you might see some rounding errors.

You can find more cycling data here: Datasheet Bike Ottawa


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  1. Census Canada shows surprising bike commute shares in Ottawa
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