Far too often when discussing or debating issues involving public transit our elected officials, municipal administration, and the media quote public transit ridership numbers from the census, claiming that “only 4% of people use public transit”. As I have argued before, this under counts transit usage and additionally is likely to dramatically under count public transit dependency.
In Canada the question that is asked on the long-form census (previously the National Household Survey) is:
How did this person usually get to work?
- Car, truck or van — as a driver
- Car, truck or van — as a passenger
- Subway or elevated rail
- Light rail, streetcar or commuter train
- Passenger ferry
- Walked to work
- Motorcycle, scooter or moped
- Other method
Note the word “usually“. The 2016 census guide says:
Mark the type of transportation usually used to get to work.
Mark only one response indicating the type of transportation used for most of the distance travelled.
If different modes of transportation were used to go to work and come home:
- mark the mode of transportation used to get to work.
If different modes of transportation were used at different times of the year, for example, the person took public transit to work during the winter and walked, bicycled, or used a motorcycle in the summer:
- mark the mode of transportation used during the week of May 1 to May 7, 2016.
If more than one mode of transportation was used, for example, driving and taking public transit:
- the person should mark the one used for most of the travel distance
Note that the census questions regarding transportation are all in the “labour market activities” section. This question only counts commuting to work, as if the only use public transit has is to get people to work, and (according to the census guide) only getting to work matters, not getting home.
…the vast majority of trips – about 84%– aren’t simple home-to-work commutes. And it’s not just that people who work also go to the grocery store, restaurants, or friends’ homes. Lots of people don’t work at all, and those people – largely students, the elderly, or people with disabilities – are disproportionately likely to use transit for all or almost all of their trips. Finally, plenty of people who do work might drive three or four days a week and take transit the other one or two. But since the Census only asks about what they do most of the time, they’ll show up as “drivers.” All of these things will tend to undercount a place’s reliance on public transit.
Granted, as a relative measure, the work commuter is one way to determine if ridership is increasing or decreasing over the long term. But transit dependency is more than just commuting to work.
We need better measurement of public transit dependency so our city administration, city councillors, mayor, and even elected officials at the Provincial and Federal levels have a better understanding of the number of people who have a stake in public transit. Many do have a stake, whether travelling to work, school, doctor appointments, social activities, or simply depend on public transit because another member of their household uses it even if they do not.
Until we have those measures we must remind anyone using census numbers there are dramatic and significant flaws in using them to make decisions about public transit.