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Do we spend too much time commuting?

Time spent commuting to work, Melbourne

I’m currently reading a new book by writer and journalist Jenny Sinclair, When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city. This fascinating book sets out to discover what makes Melbourne unique and, according to the cover blurb, ultimately concludes that it’s all in our collective imagination.

I’m only a little way into the book but a comment she makes – just an aside really – caught my attention and sent me scurrying to the spreadsheet. She’s strolling through Victorian era parts of Melbourne when she’s:

reminded that there’s another (Melbourne), in which workers with affordable houses in Sunbury or Hoppers Crossing have no choice but to drive for hours every day to get to their jobs

This passage reminded me of Richard Florida’s recent claim that commutes in the US are so long they’re injurious to health. I made the point in this post that Florida’s methodology is flawed and time spent commuting in the US is actually relatively short.

But what about Melbourne – is Sinclair’s understanding that many Melburnians “drive for hours” to get to work correct?

The accompanying chart shows the time taken to travel to work in Melbourne (one-way) based on VISTA data for 2007. It shows travel by all modes, including walk time, wait time and in-vehicle time.

It can be seen that more than half of all trips to work (54%) took 30 minutes or less. Only 12% of commutes took longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes. Thus only a small proportion of workers in Melbourne travel for hours to get to work.

Those that have very long trips are probably likely to be residents of peri-urban areas who commute long distances by train. In common with all public transport users they will also endure long wait times – 23% of all time spent commuting by train in Melbourne is spent waiting (the corresponding figures for tram and bus are 17% and 14%).

Some of the very long journeys will also probably be motorists who are “putting up” with longer travel times while doing something short-term like temporarily relieving at a branch office, making a field trip or who are in the process of adjusting to a change of job or house.

Given Melbourne is a city of four million people, it seems to me that commute times for the greater number of workers aren’t too bad. And they’re all the more reasonable when account is taken of the fact that, as I discussed here, households choose a residential location having regard to a range of factors, such as the job location of multiple workers, access to schools and many different social purposes.

What this doesn’t show is commute distances. Travellers time budgets tend to be relatively constant but improvements in speeds tend to lead to longer distances. I’ll look another time at journey to work distances.

BTW I’m about a quarter of the way into Jenny Sinclair’s book and enjoying it immensely. I’ll post a review when I’m done.

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  • 1
    Ian Woodcock
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    What the graph shows is that about 50% of people spend more than 30 minutes commuting to work. Is that too much? It’s been suggested that a 30-minute journey to work has been one of the constants in the historical development of cities, that city size can be correlated this constant in relation to the available mode of transport at various historical periods.

    If during the course of history a 30 minute commute could be regarded as the maximum time-budget, then Melbourne is now defying the trend. Either half of the population of Melbourne is a new kind of human that likes to spend more than 30 minutes getting to work (or more than an hour for the round-trip), or at least half of Melbourne’s workforce is most likely not happy with their lot.

    When so many people are in this situation, it starts to look normal. Should Melburnians accept their lot?

  • 2
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I think the reference to a “30 minute commute” you cite is to an average (either the mean or, more usually, the median) for that population, not a maximum.

    Not sure about the concept of a commuting time budget. Most of the discussion about constant travel budgets I’ve seen is in the context of a budget for total daily travel.

  • 3
    Ian Woodcock
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    But the question remains: should half the population of Melbourne have to spend more than an hour a day simply getting to and from work? Australians now have the longest working hours in the OECD, so factor in commuting time, there’s not a lot of time left for what used to be called ‘life’ for a very large proportion of Melburnians. If we asked them “would you like to spend less time commuting each day?”, what do you think their answer would be?

  • 4
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    Ian, I wouldn’t ask them a leading question and expect to get a valid result!

    The concept of a (relatively) stable average commute time over very long periods implies that people, on average, won’t use saved time for ‘life’ but rather to travel further. Longer travel distances are the key problem.

    Update: It’s useful to put “30 minutes” travel time in context. I live in the inner suburbs, 7.6 km as-the-crow-flies from Flinders St station. I live 900 metres from the station.

    It takes me 10 minutes to walk to the station, 3 minutes buffer/wait time, 20 minutes in-vehicle time (assumes train is express from Clifton Hill to Jolimont), plus (say) 5 minutes to walk from Flinders St station to destination. That totals 38 minutes. If I were going to Parliament station it would be 48 minutes. And all that assumes the train is running on time.

  • 5
    jack horner
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to know how people value their time travelling by the various modes.

    Personally I much prefer a *reliable, non-crowded* walk/ public transport trip to the stress of driving, and I’m willing to pay for it with up to 50% more total trip time.

    Many other people obviously prefer their coocoon. And the easiness of not having to investigate PT timetables.

  • 6
    Ian Woodcock
    Posted September 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    … and according to the Metlink site, my entire JTW should be 11 minutes, but the headway on that particular tram is very unpredictable, making it quicker to walk oftentimes (and the timetable redundant).

    My question was of course rhetorical – I was hoping that your piece would contain some gem of wisdom that attempts to answer the question in its title – how much time commuting is too much? We can interpret the stats in various ways, and we have two dramatically different takes on the same data, but no answer to the question of whether or not we spend too much time commuting.

    If you know of any research that seeks to find out whether Melburnians are happy with the amount of time they spend travelling, please share it.

  • 7
    Posted September 26, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Of course people would like shorter commutes. They’d like more happiness, more health and more love too! If you ask them, people will naturally say they want more ‘good’ things and less ‘bad’ things.

    The point is how many work opportunities can people reach within a reasonable commute time. Lots of research indicates that given the opportunity to reduce their commute time, people on average wont bank the time but will use it to travel further.

    For example, if a new railway is faster and lowers travel times, people on average tend to use it as an opportunity to expand their job and/or housing choices. They choose, on average, to maintain the same travel time because they feel they are better off. The pesky blighters!

  • 8
    Ian Woodcock
    Posted September 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Some people may do that, while others clearly prefer the opposite: property values in the central and inner suburbs (where 50% of the jobs are) rise faster and further than those in the middle and outer suburbs where the modal choices are poorer.

    Mind you, what evidence from Melbourne of this shift is there? There has been no new railway line built for a very, very long time, while there have been plenty of new roads built, inducing lots of traffic and fostering outward, car-dependent expansion at the usual low densities.

    And why isn’t the ‘point’ that people would like lots of ‘good’ things? Surely, if people want a range of things, good and bad, then how does planning maximise the good and minimise the bad? It’s not enough to use ‘freedom of choice’ arguments in one sphere (as though people are just maximising their access to ‘good’ things, such as big box retailing) and deny their validity in another!

3 Trackbacks

  1. ...] VISTA indicates the median travel time for Melbourne commuters is actually a bit longer than HILDA indicates – 60 minutes per day, or five hours per week (I’ve looked at commuting times in Melbourne before). [...

  2. ...] minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take [...

  3. ...] – it’s a fact of life – but whether commutes are too long. Most workers in Australian cities have relatively short commutes. For example, more than half of all one-way trips to work (54%) in Melbourne take 30 minutes or [...

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