Housing, families and your morning commute

Aaron of Licker Geospatial Consulting Co. (LGeo) writes about how the availability of family-oriented housing may be bad for our health.

How do we keep families in the City?

Urban sprawl does not requires a clever intro. However, urban sprawl is worthy of some investigation. According to the Canadian Council for Urbanism and their investigation into sprawl and suburban development in Canada, approximately 69% of Canadians live in auto suburbs or exurban environments. In the CRD context, approximately 64% of residents live in some sort of sprawling suburb[1]. Recognizing that we are continuing to develop and live in sprawling areas, it is important that we start to build an understanding of the implications of sprawl and what that means for our families and our health.

To sprawl, literally means to spread out in a haphazard fashion. Urban sprawl is low density development characterized by large lots, low density and a car-focused design. The effect of sprawl on the homeowners and renters who live in it, results in an interesting cost dynamic: Residents who migrate to sprawling areas can afford larger housing on larger lots at lower costs due to relatively cheaper land, but in turn spend a considerably larger portion of their lives driving (for work, amenities, education, etc). Resulting in increased expenses and health risks.

Commuting by car: Westshore to Victoria

Capital Regional District: the effects of sprawl

There are many excellent indicators for sprawl but this article will focus on one standard of measure which is location efficiency. Meaning, from this place how long does it take for me to get everywhere I need to go? One reflection of this indicator is average commuting duration and mode of commute - data that was thankfully collected by the Census of Canada in 2016. This data shows us: where you live dictates how far and how long it takes for you drive to work.

Let's take a look at each municipality in the Capital Regional District. How long is the average morning commute? What percentage of this commute is completed by car? And what percentage of workers in the area actually work in their community?

The differences in the table[2] above do not seem that stark until we consider the fact that these are one-way distances, for one day, a year. What this means is that compared to residents of the City of Victoria, residents of Colwood spend on average an additional 18 minutes a day or 75 hours a year (roughly two full weeks of work), in their cars going to and from work. And that's just the journey to work! While not quantified by the Census, in these areas, it is conceivable that there are significant additional amounts of time spent in the car conducting errands, visiting cultural institutions or driving to the ferry. It is self-evident but we will spell it out: Living far away from the core of the City makes more.

Why this matters?

If no one lived in sprawling areas or were not moving there, there would be less cause for concern. However, we know that there are significant amounts of development in more far-flung areas. Out in newly developing suburbs, land is usually less expensive and typically it's more economical for a developer to build bigger homes on larger lots and bigger homes in general. The CRD does not track developments by number of bedrooms, so it is more feasible to look at Census data which indicates how many new homes by size, have been added to an area.

To do this, we can divide up the CRD into three categories of commute distance: Less than 22 minutes, 22-26 minutes, and more than 26 minutes. Between 2011 and 2016 the following changes occurred.

What we see here[3], is interesting. While more 3+ bed homes are being built in areas with lower drive times. On an intensity basis (% of change) far more large-sized homes are being built on the West Shore (a 11% change!). Likely this is due to greater land availability in these areas and therefore more 3+ bed homes being built.

Why this matters for families?

Young families with children, when presented with the option, will opt for larger ground-oriented products when affordable and feasible. In Table 3 below[4], we can see what home products Millennial owners choose to live in the CRD depending on whether they have kids or not.

Millennial home owners without children seemingly choose to own in suited single-family homes, low rise apartments or high-rise apartments (combined 56%) As opposed to choosing single, semi-detached or row housing / townhome (combined 44%). However, once kids enter into the equation, housing preferences shift dramatically. Homes that are larger with more bedrooms, are now very appealing. Indeed, 73% of millennial families (aged 25-39) with children, prefer to live in single, semi detached or townhome products. And only 8% live in apartment-style products. The implications of these preferences, when areas are not introducing a new supply of 3+ bedroom options, is sobering.

Disappearing families

Using the same commute time categorization, we can understand what this means for changes to the number of families with children.

Between 2006 and 2016, The number of families[5] with children at home dropped by 4% in the lower commute time area and increased 21% in the higher commute time areas. What this means is that families are forming and/or choosing to move to these further out areas, perhaps because a greater comparative availability of larger homes. This is a doubled edged sword. Not only are large parts of the CRD losing families (and the associated urban vibrancy that results for these populations), but these families are choosing to move to areas that cause them to drive significantly more (75 hours a year or more!).

How do we halt the flight of families to suburban areas? How do we avoid taxing these families, who literally lose whole days of their lives driving, with the resulting lack of physical activity, increased likelihood of road accidents and costs of travel?

Build more

The missing link is supply. We need a lot more three or more bedroom dwellings in denser urban areas. There are numerous neighbourhoods in Victoria, where less than 15% of their dwellings have 3+ bedrooms. There is room to build more missing middle (multi-unit row housing, townhomes, low rise, plex-housing) in these areas. There are many neighbourhoods with a lot of 3+ bedroom dwellings, but few children. This is due, in large part, to a lack of affordable supply.

To elaborate, 67% of the City of Victoria is zoned for single detached housing. In these zones builders can only easily construct a bigger less affordable single-family home with a small basement suite or coach house… and nothing else. This is not an efficient use of land. This land could be used to build appropriately sized multi-unit dwellings but it is not happening as these dwellings are excluded from development.

As a result, development in the City is favouring apartments. Between 2006-2016, for every one townhome constructed (50% are 3+ bed) eleven apartment units are built (5% are 3+ bed). We need to change this ratio in order to keep families in this City!

Aaron Licker is the Principal and Lead Analyst at Licker Geospatial Consulting Co.


2. Statistics Canada data Tables - 98-400-X2016325 Commuting Flow from Geography of Residence to Geography of Work: - Census Subdivisions: Sex (3) for the Employed Labour Force Aged 15 Years and Over Having a Usual Place of Work, in Private Households, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data and 98-400-X2016328 Main Mode of Commuting (10), Commuting Duration (6), Distance from Home to Work (12) and Time Leaving for Work (7) for the Employed Labour Force Aged 15 Years and Over Having a Usual Place of Work, in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Divisions and Census Subdivisions, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data

3. CRD Census Data (2011, 2016)

4. Statistics Canada - Table: 98-400-X2016226 - Age of Primary Household Maintainer (15), Tenure (4), Structural Type of Dwelling (10), Condominium Status (3) and Household Type Including Census Family Structure (16) for Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data

5. CRD Census Data (2006, 2016)

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