Almost every day, Luke Hendrikse wakes up and makes a sometimes perilous decision that less than two per cent of others in his situation choose to make: he commutes by bike.
“A lot of the main arteries that get you from where you live to where you want to be do not have any bike facilities whatsoever, and they’re usually quite large roads that people drive very fast on. If you’re not biking on the sidewalk, you’re really risking your life, in my opinion,” he says.
“There’s a lot of cars, and bike infrastructure is very lacking. Cycling is sometimes really dangerous, and I don’t fault anyone for not doing it,” said Hendrikse.
Hendrikse is a master’s student in aerospace engineering at Carleton University. He commutes about seven kilometres from southeast Ottawa to campus. He says he is fortunate to have protected bike lanes on most of his route but, he acknowledges the risks associated with his choice. Though he has a car, he says driving is stressful, especially with heavy traffic during rush hour. If he does drive, parking is expensive and difficult to find, and his commute often takes longer in a car.
“I love watching the line of cars trying to turn on to campus. I just roll past them and don't have to worry about any of that stuff. That's a big, big benefit,” he said.
Hendrikse adds that he considers his impact on the environment in his commuting choices. He says that while he doesn’t blame individuals in Ottawa for driving, seeing so many cars on the road can be frustrating.
“It makes me a little sad that the driving is so high. But I do understand and appreciate the barriers,” he said.
According to Statistics Canada data from the 2021 Census, 77 per cent of Ottawa commuters did so by car (or van or truck), while just more than 11 per cent took public transit and only 1.5 per cent commute by bike. But commuting by vehicle comes with an environmental cost, particularly since so few are electric.
“Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the province of Ontario,” said Nate Wallace, the clean transportation project manager at Environmental Defence Ottawa.
“It significantly contributes to heating up our planet and driving the sorts of climate crises that we're seeing all around us. Whether that's forest fires, or the smoke that we were breathing in the summer.”
A recent Statistics Canada report with provincial data for 2023 shows similar trends, with more than 82 per cent of all Ontario commuters driving compared to less than 12 per cent taking public transit.
Greenhouse gas from transportation makes up about a third of the province's emissions and Canada has among the most polluting vehicle fleet of any major car market in the world, he says.
According to a working paper called the Canadian Suburbs Atlas, 62 per cent of Ottawa-Gatineau lives in what the report calls "auto suburbs," where residents commute almost exclusively by automobile. A further 15 per cent live in exurban areas. Only 14 per cent live in the "active core" while another nine per cent live in a "transit suburb."
Wallace says better cycling infrastructure and more efficient and reliable public transit would help.
“The main barrier to having more people cycle is the fact that they don't feel safe,” he said.
One of the biggest influences on Ottawa’s vehicle commuting is public transportation.
“Ottawa has probably the worst public transit, and it's not getting any better," said Dan Gakire, climate campaigner at Ecology Ottawa. "Especially if they're proposing to cut routes and increase fares.”
“If public transit has been done well, and it's reliable, it's effective, it's affordable and accessible; it really has so many positive impacts. It can definitely decrease our vehicle reliance, and dependence,” he said.
Many riders are also finding it unpredictable and unreliable.
Cherlinta Cher-Aime says that, in her experience, “the busses are never on time.”
Cher-Aime doesn’t drive and relies on public transit for her commute to work. She uses the O-Train or busses daily. She says that public transit is unreliable and often overcrowded.
“I feel like a lot of people don't realize how bad it is, how unreliable public transportation is. Even though it's supposed to be here helping people,” she said.
In addition to transit being consistently late and unreliable, with so many cars on the road, busses are likely to experience even further delays because of traffic congestion. Wallace says the added cost of excessive amounts of time is another huge deterrent for potential transit riders.
Boaz Aharony commutes from Kanata to Carleton University. Over the last few years, he has tried many different approaches to getting into to town. He used to use a combination of cycling and public transit which would take him about an hour. He says with recent changes to transit, the same approach would take him between an hour and a half and two hours. So, he tried carpooling or considered park and ride services, but found that to be inefficient as well.
“You're just leaving your car and getting on a bus that's going to be even slower than your car,” he said.
Now he has reluctantly made his commute by car.
“I want to use transit. It's so much cheaper, but I can't lose that time in my day,” said Aharony.
“If it's 40 minutes of traffic for my car, then it'll be at least two hours with a bus.”
Even while commuting by car, Aharony is conscious of the environment. He says he still carpools when possible, but he would like to see better transit solutions to help limit vehicle dependency and improve commuting options for farther areas in the city.
Wallace and Gakire say that improving public transit in Ottawa is key to reducing vehicle dependency. Shifting the way Ottawa’s commute is a necessity in reducing the harmful environmental consequences caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
"The main thing is, in the near-term focus on bus service expansion. Because that can be done a lot quicker than building light rail, or heavy rail, or any kind of rail essentially,” said Wallace.
Gakire says that if better services are accessible, more people will use them and shift away from cars.
“Choosing mass transportation over single use cars, it's a big step in combating this, and trying to mitigate these climate impacts. So, the choice you make on how you commute to work really has its effects,” he said.