Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 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 longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing.

Those who want a short commute will value their time highly and seek to live close to where they work. For many higher income earners that means living in a somewhat smaller house in the inner city or inner suburbs, where they are close to the CBD. Here they can change employers over the course of an entire career yet remain working in the same location. There’s even a good chance that one’s partner and adult children will also work in the CBD.

However with only around 15% of metropolitan jobs located within 1.5 km of Melbourne Town Hall, the vast majority of employees can’t work in the centre. A suburbanite who works in a supermarket has a good chance of finding employment locally, but as occupations become more specialised there’s a greater probability that workers will have to travel further to maximise the quality of their job. High-skill, high-pay jobs tend to concentrate at selected points rather than spread out. Jobs for high school teachers might seem reasonably uniformly distributed, but most teachers don’t work at their nearest high school.

A high school teacher could choose to live as near to her employer as she could afford or, if it’s an unattractive area, as close as she can tolerate. Dwelling size and neighbourhood amenity will be part of that calculation. But if she wishes to change employers at some point in her career she’ll probably either have to move house again or take on a longer commute. In choosing where to live she might also have to take account of other members of her household who could have very different commuting patterns. In other words, it’s not easy to get and maintain a short commute anymore — people change jobs more than they used to and multiple households members work, usually in different places.

There’s an argument that people who choose to live in the outer suburbs end up paying more by way of longer commuting time and higher vehicle ownership than they would if they lived closer to the centre in a smaller dwelling of similar value. As explained here, this ‘false consciousness’ line of argument fails to account for the fact that high rates of car ownership are endemic in Melbourne, in both outer and middle suburbs. Another factor is petrol only makes up a relatively small part of total vehicle ownership. Moreover, commute times by car – the overwhelming mode of choice of outer (and middle) suburban settlers – do not increase significantly with distance from the city centre, largely because most jobs are in the suburbs. Proponents of this argument also tend to undervalue the importance of consumers’ preference for space and amenity.

If there is a villain in the commuting time debate, it’s public transport. The median one-way commute time by car in Melbourne is 30 minutes, but by public transport it’s 55 minutes. In fact median commute times by public transport are appreciably longer than those by car in every municipality in Melbourne. For Frankston workers, the median penalty is 55 minutes (or 110 minutes per day); for Mornington Peninsula commuters it’s an extra 70 minutes (or 140 minutes per day). Drive times are remarkably consistent across municipalities at around 25-30 minutes one way. Commuting by public transport is longer because of walking time, waiting time and modal transfers. Trams and buses also mix it with traffic. In the outer suburbs especially, another reason is because commuters travel long distances by train to get to choice jobs, like those in the CBD (but it’s important to note that only around 5% of workers in areas like Frankston and Mornington Peninsula use public transport – the rest spend 25-30 minutes, on average, driving to work).

If public transport continues to increase its share of commutes at the expense of cars, it’s possible the average commute time will increase relative to the current level (although public transport times might improve relative to the travel times of cars slowed by increasing congestion). If there are social reasons why we would want to discourage very long rail commutes then some old policy habits – like constraining dwelling supply in established suburbs, as well as increasing the accessibility of satellite towns – need to be rethought. In the meantime, policy-makers can look to increase the speed of trains (hard), encourage growth of high pay jobs in the suburbs (harder) or make trains more comfortable, productive and safe for passengers (probably a little easier).