Measurement of Distances in Canada with Time
We have all heard the “Canadians measure distance from one city to another city in hours, not kilometres.” or “The Tim Hortons is just 5 minutes away”.
As a Canadian, we are guilty of looking too hard for cultural differences that may not exist to reinforce our sense of unique identity separate from the World and more importantly The United States.
Do Canadians measure distance in time? Yes. But so does everyone.
In ancient Rome, the measurement for long distances was distinct from today’s mile, though the term itself has its roots in Roman practices. Romans calculated a mile as “mille passus,” meaning 1,000 paces in Latin, which later transformed into the English word “mile.” This measurement was based on counting 1,000 double-step marching strides, with each stride spanning from the heel of one foot touching the ground to the point where the same heel lands again. As Roman soldiers marched, they would count these strides up to 1,000, marking the completion of one Roman mile. Notably, this Roman mile was shorter compared to the modern mile measurement.
Despite a solid measurement system for distances, in history humans still used time as a basis for a trip duration. Both were used, time and distance, just like today. If you’re a Roman, and your friend Quickius says “it’s just a day trip” you may want to ask “well how many mille passus?”.
“Three day voyage by boat”, “2 day trip by wagon”, “half a day’s journey by horse”, it’s all about context and throughout history we have always used time as a measurement of distance. Measuring distance in time is not Canadian.
Do they measure distance in time outside of Canada?
Yes. They measure distance in time outside of Canada.
“Berlin is 5 hours away from my house by train”, Germans don’t have the exact number of kilometres in their heads, as efficient as they are.
In American Urban planning towns are located 10 miles (16km) away from each other. That means you’re at most 5 miles (8km) away from any town centre. 3 miles per hour is the average walking speed, so that means about 2 hours to walk there, time to run your errands, and 2 hours back. That was basis for city planning. The use of horses, cars, trains affects this, where modes of transportation are more common you’ll find cities/towns are designed for them.
Where do they measure distance not in time?
Cities don’t measure distance in time as often as rural areas. There are too many variables in cities to consistently measure distance in time. Toronto was ranked the worst traffic in North America so it would be silly to say “it takes two hours, considering one hour to sit in traffic, unless you go on Sunday then its only an hour”.
There are many more routes to take too, like in Seinfeld when they’re fighting in NYC about what route is faster. But even then George brags about “making good time”. So the time is dependent on what route you take.
There are also commonalities such as how long it takes the public transport to go from station to station. In a city like Vancouver, I don’t need to tell you how long it takes to go Downtown if you live in Metrotown. So you may just say “it’s 5 stops away”. Continuing with the commonalities, instead of even suggesting the time or physical distance, people might just say it’s located next to a landmark.
Commonly in cities people use “blocks” something is ____ blocks away. Because people round up, and down for time, you’ll never get “7.5 minutes” it’s way easier to say the distance in cross streets, as everything in a city is usually closer.
Comparing Canadian Cities in Differences
Nanaimo, a small city on Vancouver Island with a population of 100,000. Usually people drive from one end to the other end daily for errands or commute (about 10-15 minutes).
When you overlay this map on Greater Vancouver, located just across from Nanaimo you can cover an area that could include millions of people (if laid correctly). Nanaimo tip to tip, is as long as the Iron Workers bridge to the Pattullo bridge. Stanley Park to Starlight Casino. UBC to Richmond. These are million person differences that while in Nanaimo is just “10 minutes that way bud” but in a city like Vancouver can be an hour away. Create your own city overlay maps.