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New census data shows how commuting dropped during pandemic, labour force aging

2.8 million fewer commuters in 2021 than in 2016 during shift toward remote work
A sign for help wanted is pictured in a business window in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. A new census release from Statistics Canada Wednesday is expected to shed light on the changing dynamics of the Canadian labour force as well as how people got to work last year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

New census data shows commuting levels dropped significantly in 2021 compared to 2016, and while some of that decline has rebounded, transit ridership hasn’t fully recovered.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 2.8 million fewer commuters in 2021 than in 2016 as the pandemic drove a shift toward remote work.

The federal agency published a series of reports Wednesday based on the 2021 census, with two of them focused on commuting to work and the evolution of the labour force.

The data shows how COVID-19 altered commuting patterns and commute times, which fell with fewer cars on the road. StatCan notes that while those times are now rising again, commutes are still faster than they were in 2016.

Tricia Williams, director of research evaluation and knowledge mobilization at the Future Skills Centre, said the pandemic is a “tale of multiple stories.”

“When you look at a lot of working-class people, their lives maybe haven’t changed so much.” Williams said. “But there’s a vast swath of the population that has been able to have more flexible, remote workplaces.”

The new census report illustrates that dichotomy. The drop in car commuting in May 2021 was mostly among workers in professional service industries. Among other workers, the number of car commuters actually increased.

By May 2021, most transit routes were operating normally with public health measures in effect, including mask mandates on trains and buses. A million Canadians took a bus or train to work in 2021, less than the 1.2 million who took transit when the data was first collected in 1996 and almost 50 per cent lower than it was in 2016.

Given the impact of the pandemic on remote work and commuting, StatCan also compared the 2021 data with updated numbers from this spring.

That showed that by May 2022, the number of people driving to work was back to 2016 levels. However, the number of people taking public transit was still lower than it was six years ago, making up just 7.7 per cent of all commuters.

Fewer people walked or biked to work in 2021 even though the federal government has spent millions on active transportation in recent years, including more than $400 million in 2021 alone.

Between 2016 and 2021 the number of people walking or cycling dropped by 26 per cent to 811,000. StatCan says that is due in part to the fact that there were fewer jobs in accommodations, food services and retail in 2021 — nearly a third of the people who walked or biked to work in 2016 were in those sectors.

Williams said coming out of the pandemic, workers are hesitant to give up remote working.

“I think we’ll continue to see flexibility as the new normal in workplaces,” she said.

Statistics Canada has also published data on how the labour force is evolving as the Canadian population ages.

The labour force participation rate has fallen each census year since 2006 because of the aging of the baby boomer generation. As their growing health needs combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, pressures on the health-care system have increased.

The number of health-care workers increased by nearly 17 per cent between 2016 and 2021, but the rising demand for health-care workers during the pandemic has also brought into focus the challenges of ongoing labour shortages.

“Given the importance of demographic changes to economic growth, there will be continued focus on the extent to which immigration can mitigate the effects of population aging,” the report said.

Between 2016 and 2021, 1.3 million immigrants were admitted to Canada, more than during any previous five-year period.

Experts have long raised concerns that immigrants are sometimes underutilized in the labour market. However, the report found that the unemployment gap is narrowing for recent immigrants in the working age group between 25 and 64.

In 2021, there was a 3.2 percentage-point gap in the unemployment rates of recent immigrants compared to other workers in the same age range. That’s down from five percentage points in 2016.

During a news conference Wednesday, Statistics Canada’s director general for labour and social well-being, Josée Bégin, highlighted factors that may have contributed to the narrowing of the gap, including previous work or education experience in Canada.

“We know that recent immigrants are more educated than any previous cohort of immigrants,” Bégin said. “The fact that they are more educated has an impact in terms of the labour market outcomes.”

—Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press

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