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

cars in traffic commuting to work

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

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, with fewer Canadian workers driving, taking transit or walking and bicycling in 2021 compared to five years before.

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With fewer cars on the road, commute times also fell. StatCan notes that while those times are now rising again, commutes are still faster than they were 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 workers. 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, which is 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.

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 accommodation and food services and retail trade in 2021 _ nearly a third of the people who walked or biked to work in 2016 were in those sectors.

Statistics Canada has also published a report on how the labour force evolved last year as the overall population ages.

The labour force participation rate has fallen each census year since 2006 because of the aging of the baby boomer generation.

Amid growing health-care needs of an aging population and the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of health-care workers increased by nearly 17 per cent in 2021 over 2016.

The rising demand for health-care workers during the pandemic brought into focus the challenges of ongoing labour shortages. Some advocates and experts tout immigration as a way to address these gaps.

“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 for recent immigrants is narrowing. In 2021, there was a 3.2 percentage-point gap in the unemployment rates of recent immigrants compared to other workers. 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, Josee Begin, 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,” Begin said. “The fact that they are more educated has an impact in terms of the labour market outcomes.”

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