Toronto Transportation: long-form census data impacts quality of life

Ted Hsu
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As I work to mobilize support for Bill C-626, my private member’s bill to reinstate the mandatory long-form census, I have been asking Canadians how the elimination of the mandatory long-form census has affected their lives and their work. Christina Bouchard, who works in Transportation Services with the City of Toronto, responded to my request, and wrote about some of the far-reaching problems with replacing the mandatory long-form census with the voluntary National Household Survey. Please help me. Please share your experience with census data by emailing me at [email protected].

quality of life

With good data, cities can plan for relaxing afternoons rather than gridlock

The City of Toronto is the fifth largest government in Canada.  The Greater Toronto Area contributes approximately 1/5 of Canada’s GDP. Toronto’s substantial transportation infrastructure keeps the city moving. Toronto is rapidly changing.  We are working hard to serve our residents, as the infrastructure maintained by Transportation Services regularly serves over 5 million people, including both residents and people from surrounding jurisdictions who work or visit.  My Transportation Services colleagues in right-of-way management mention to me often that they are issuing more construction permits than any other City in North America right now.

This rapid growth is putting substantial pressure on our existing road network.  Substantive changes to the physical built environment directly affect the operations of the public spaces in between new private developments.  It is very important that we have high-quality information concerning travel patterns in order to design our network of highways, roadways, and other transportation assets such as signals, bike infrastructure, sidewalks, etc.

Although municipally we are tracking what is being built where,  alone is not enough information to effectively design and run a city.  We need to know how demographics are changing along with the City’s changing built form. Demographic information helps inform transportation planning, by identifying, for example, areas where high densities of residents who cannot afford to drive are.  Previous census information indicated that Toronto was receiving more new Canadians than any other part of the country. Settlement patters affect density, as some groups will live as denser family units for cultural or economic reasons, and this in turn affects pressures on transportation infrastructure.

I recently did a Report with Toronto Public Health, which for the first time quantified the economics of Active Transportation costs and benefits in Toronto.  Quantifying the amount of walking and bicycle travel is a worthwhile exercise, because the amount of active transportation a person engages in directly offsets their health care costs.  In the “inner suburb” neighbourhoods, where there are high rates of diabetes, this is particularly relevant, but we lack good data to help us direct infrastructure investments.

To be even more specific; the federal government provided several million dollars in Recreation Infrastructure Canada stimulus money post-2008 which we have used to build a system of 30 km of multi-use trails in hydro corridor and former rail corridors.  The trails were deliberately designed (by us) in an extremely linear fashion (no scenic twists and turns) because the parcels we were building on are flat, and therefore may be viable as transportation corridors for non-motorized users.  Anecdotally the trails are a success, there are now people walking and cycling in these industrial lands that were not being used by the public before.  However, we lack the census travel data to shed light on which demographics are using the paths and for what type of trip.

Active Transportation, in particular when it is designed in conjunction with transit facilities has been documented as a key way to improve health outcomes.  This lack of information limits our ability to design a network of facilities that meaningfully links origins to destinations.  The less information we have, the less we are able to get the best value-for-money on this Federal investment.

Just as marketers collect information to help them understand their customers, programs and infrastructure can be most effective if their design is based on information about the users.  The OECD already estimates that congestion costs Toronto 3.3 billion a yearThe cancellation of the census is a step backwards towards addressing this problem and it’s economic impacts.