Commuting data affirms importance of cities

Here is my recent TJ column on the role of cities serving as employment centres for broader geographic territories:

If New Brunswick is to revive its economy and get back on a path to fiscal sustainability, it will require more economic growth and job creation in its cities.

After having studied this issue for more than two decades, I believe the lack of sustained economic growth in the province’s cities has been the primary reason why the province has lagged virtually every other province in Canada for both population and gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

The latest data from Statistics Canada on how far Canadians commute to work confirms the importance of our cities as employment generators. Using information gleaned during the 2011 Census, the statistics agency recently published data showing commuting flows from municipality to municipality (Census sub-divisions).

The only exception in this analysis is that it excludes commuting patterns for communities where the commuting flow is less than 20 persons. For example, if only 15 people commuted from Bloomfield to Saint John for work each day it would not be included.

With this exception noted, there were 41,590 persons in the employed workforce within the borders of the City of Saint John in 2011. Of that number, 25,895 actually lived in Saint John (only 62 percent). The other 15,695 lived in communities surrounding Saint John and even further afield and commuted into the city on a daily basis. Down the road in the Parish of Musquash only 55 residents actually worked in that community while seven times as many (390) commuted into the City of Saint John for employment.

In the Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe area, nearly 16,000 people commuted in for work each day from outlying communities as far away as Sackville, Amherst and Bouctouche.
The City of Fredericton had nearly 38,000 working in the city limits and only 22,215 of them actually lived in the city. The rest commuted in from a wide catchment area including 130 folks from Saint John and 190 from Minto.

In turns out the City of Bathurst is the urban centre most reliant on workers from outside its city limits. In 2011, there were 8,460 persons working within the city limits of which only 3,405 were Bathurst residents (40 percent).

This data reaffirms the critically important role our cities play as employment generators for larger economic regions.

As another example, the residents of Queens County – located in the centre of the Fredericton, Moncton and Saint John triangle – had the longest average commute time to work. On average, residents of Queens County faced a 27.3 minute commute to work in 2011. A large number of Queens County residents commuted into Fredericton for work every day. They faced a long commute but they also had a job.

The good news is that roughly 96 percent of New Brunswickers live within an hour’s drive of an urban centre. If all our cities had strong and growing economies most people living in a reasonable commuting area would be able to find work.

Again, the City of Fredericton provides a good example. Communities such as Tracy, Douglas, Oromocto, Stanley and the parishes of Kingsclear and Bright all have unemployment rates well below the provincial average as residents are commuting into Fredericton for work.

The latest data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey reveals the province’s urban centres are weakening. Between June 2012 and June 2013, on a seasonally unadjusted basis, the province’s census metropolitan census agglomeration areas (urban centres) shed a combined 7,400 jobs. Some 5,600 jobs were lost in the urban core areas. The unemployment rate in urban centres is on the rise.

We have cities – medium-sized and small – located around New Brunswick. We need to spend more time thinking about their role and about how we can foster more urban growth. If our cities get back to their role as job creation engines, it will bode well for the province’s future.