(click) John Faine interviews Pallas (ALP), Mees (Greens) and Mulder (Lib) on 774. 'Spirited' exchange between Faine and Mees at circa 29.00

In his new book, Disconnected, Dr Andrew Leigh argues that social capital, defined as the level of trust and reciprocity between people, has declined in Australia. I’m not convinced, however, that one of the culprits he fingers for this loss is guilty.

Several measures indicate social capital is on the wane – organisational membership, church attendance, political party membership, union membership, sporting participation, cultural attendance and volunteering.

Dr Leigh identifies seven key causes of this decline: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, television, ethnic diversity, impersonal technologies, tipping points and car commuting.

I want to look at his argument on car commuting, which I briefly alluded to once before.

He says that time spent commuting is bad for social capital because it is time not spent with family, community and friends:

Commuters are less likely to be active members of sporting clubs or community organisations. And commuting can affect family life: one in five men who works full-time spends more hours commuting than with his children

It is also negative for social capital because most commuting is done alone. Moreover, “being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes a day inevitably means a spate of small annoyances…..taken individually these are minor annoyances but as they add up, driver frustration can lead us to form an increasingly hostile view of our fellow Australians”.

Dr Leigh relies on a study by the Australia Institute which finds that the typical worker spends 3 hours and 37 minutes per week commuting to and from work. Melbourne commuters travel for an average of 4 hours and 22 minutes per week while the average in Sydney is 4 hours and 43 minutes. Canberra residents have the shortest average commute at 2 hours and 29 minutes per week.

The Australia Institute survey uses the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. It has some limitations – it doesn’t identify mode or distinguish trips with multiple purposes. The alternative is to look at individual cities using more specialised tools like the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA). It sampled 43,800 people in Melbourne whereas the Australia Institute’s study looked at 13,000 across Australia. VISTA indicates the median commute in Melbourne is 60 minutes per day, or five hours per week (I’ve looked at commuting time in Melbourne in more detail before).

I’m not so sure that commuting by car is as poisonous for social capital as Dr Leigh contends. Why single out commuting? Yes, time spent commuting is time spent almost entirely alone (even on public transport) but so is time devoted to numerous other activities like sleeping, reading and gardening that we tend to do alone.

It might be that many of the workers who spend a lot of time commuting are the type of people who, were their commute shortened, would not use the additional time for family or community activities. They might instead simply work longer hours.

But the most important issue is that putting the finger on commuting time would only make sense if it had increased significantly over the same period that social capital has waned. Travel time is a complex matter that can vary from one city to another according to factors like metropolitan size and structure. But overall, while average commuting distance has increased significantly, average commuting time in cities like Melbourne has increased only slowly.

I’m also not sure why Dr Leigh specifically singles out car commuting as the culprit (especially since HILDA doesn’t differentiate by mode) and seems to exonerate public transport from the decline in social capital.

In Melbourne, the median commute time by car is 30 minutes and this is pretty uniform, varying from a low of 25 minutes in Mornington Peninsula to a high of 35 minutes in Bayside. Public transport commute times are much longer. They average 55 minutes and range from 40 minutes in the City of Melbourne to 90 minutes for residents of Mornington Peninsula.

Nor am I persuaded that public transport really provides a distinctly more social experience – in the sense of connecting people in non-trivial ways – than driving by car. Being a Canberra resident, perhaps he doesn’t use public transport very much.

Some people commute on public transport with friends (whereas almost all car commuters travel alone), but from my observations the vast bulk of public transport commuters prefer to keep to themselves, read or listen to music. They don’t tend to talk to strangers. People are ‘there’ together,  but they’re in their own worlds individually.

They might occasionally share a collective sigh of frustration at the latest outrage by Metro Trains. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say these sorts of exchanges build reciprocity and trust in the same way that (say) being an active member of a church or playing sport with team mates does.

And I’m not by any means convinced that the minor annoyances of driving are collectively any worse than those of public transport. We’ve all seen people who put their bags on the seat even when the trains are crowded, or crow loudly on mobile phones, or insist on getting on before others have exited the carriage, or commit a thousand other small ‘crimes’.

I’d also expect hands-free mobile phones would have some positive benefits for drivers, enabling those who commute for long periods to talk with others, make appointments, keep in touch, and generally do the myriad things that being connected with others requires.

So I think car commuting’s taking a bum rap. It’s worth noting that there’s some research indicating that while a little over half of commuters would like to reduce their travelling time, very few actually want a zero commute time (and 7% think their commute is too brief!).

Postscript: back in the dim dark ages when I was a child, it seems to me that public transport was much more social than it is now. I used to travel frequently on buses, trams and trains with my elderly grandmother who always seemed to strike up a conversation about the weather or something equally mundane with every other old codger. And it wasn’t that she was particularly outgoing – I observed these sorts of exchanges between ‘pensioners’ countless time when I was on my way to and from school. Strangers just chatted to each other on public transport as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps it’s just the way I recall it.