A compact urban form and an extensive network of trails helped Greater Victoria ride to the top when it comes to forms of active commuting, such as walking and cycling. But this headline obscures regional figures, which show Saanich is lagging behind.
Figures released Wednesday show Victoria led all mid-sized Canadian cities in the category of sustainable transporation, which Statistics Canada defines as “modes of transportation that have a smaller net impact on the environment or transportation infrastructure than cars and heavy trucks, or a near‑zero net impact.” They include public transit, car-pooling, as well as forms of active transportation, such as walking and cycling.
According to figures, just under 39 per cent of 170,830 employed commuters in the Victoria Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) use sustainable forms of transportation. A total of 10.9 per cent of commuters in 2016 rode public transit. Eleven per cent car-pooled. Just over 10 per cent walked to work, while another 6.6 per cent of commuters cycled. But these regional numbers vary across communities, with the share of active commuters (those who walk or bike) dropping further out from the region’s urban core.
Consider the City of Victoria. Of its 42,965 commuters, 23.3 per cent walk to work, while another 11.1 per cent cycle. These rates drop off significantly in Saanich, where six per cent of residents walk or cycle to work, a figure below the national average of seven per cent. These rates are even lower in West Shore communities.
Of the 18,215 residents of Langford, 805 (or four per cent) walked to work in 2016. Just over two per cent cycled. Figures for Colwood with a commuting population of 8,315 are similar. Just under three per cent walk, while just over 3.6 per cent cycle. About 4.6 per cent of commuters in Sooke walk, while just over one per cent cycle.
Looking at municipalities on the Peninsula, North Saanich and Central Saanich roughly mirror those figures, with walking and cycling in the low single digits.
Sidney marks the exception, as 13 per cent of commuters walk, while four per cent cycle, likely the result of Sidney’s compact urban form.
These figures point to policy dilemmas with the potential for social conflict. Active forms of transportation are clearly more popular in established communities like the City of Victoria with compact urban forms than in suburban communities on the West Shore or the Peninsula.
These suburban communities, however, have also exhibited higher rates of population growth than the core communities, because of more affordable housing options, with housing roughly becoming more affordable the further away from the regional core and its concentration of jobs and services.
This phenomenon has the potential to widen the physical and social gap between parts of the region where active forms of transportation are feasible, and where they can become increasingly impractical.
As the economics of housing force Greater Victoria residents to trade time for space in the search for affordable housing, it is likely that their reliance on their personal vehicles will increase, because a car ride of 30 minutes can cover more space than a bike ride of 30 minutes. On the flip side, this scenario threatens to turn active forms of transportation into a privilege of the well-to-do, who can afford to live near or in the regional core.
The scenario can also expose political fault lines over issues such infrastructure spending priorities (cycling paths versus highway spending) and larger tensions over issues such as climate change.
These points become clearer when held up against the respective commuting times and destinations of residents in the Greater Victoria area.
Nearly eight out of 10 commuters in the City of Victoria need less than 30 minutes to get to their jobs, and almost two-thirds of them travel to jobs within the City of Victoria.
Figures for Saanich are similar when it comes to commuting time, but different for commuting destination. Roughly only a third of Saanich residents stay within Saanich during their respective commutes. Everybody else commutes outside district boundaries for work.
The figures completely flip for Langford. Of its 15,540 commuting destinations, more than two-thirds lie outside Langford, and almost half of Langford commuters travel at least 30 minutes to their destinations, and there is a very good chance this commute will take place in a car. Almost 79 per cent of all Langford residents commute to their place of work by car, almost exactly 15 per cent of the regional figure of 64.9 per cent, and well above the figures for Victoria of 44.39 per cent, with Saanich around 68 per cent.
So what is to be done? The most obvious solution is to make housing in the core communities more affordable through density and in-filling, along with measures that improve public transit, encourage more mixed use developments, and make active forms of transportation like biking and walking more attractive, when held up the main alternative, the personal vehicle.
Saanich, along with Victoria, has launched several initiatives to this end, but their effects won’t be felt for a while.