Time spent commuting in Melbourne (based on VISTA data)

The Grattan Institute released a new report, Social Cities, under its Cities Program this week.

The report addresses “worrying signs that isolation and loneliness are increasing in Australia”. The data shows, it says, “that people’s friendships and neighbourhood connections have diminished over the past two decades”.

Notwithstanding the title, the report only addresses city design. It isn’t directly concerned with the sorts of fundamental economic, social and demographic changes driving social capital that Andrew Leigh addresses in his book, Disconnected.

The report’s take on social connection is confined to city structure, neighbourhoods, streets and buildings. I think that’s a great pity and symptomatic of the limited way we tend to look at cities, but I’ll leave that debate to another time.

What I want to look at now is the discussion in the report on commuting, where it’s claimed “inefficient urban transport networks see much of our day swallowed by commuting”. The principal charge is that commuting is bad for social connectedness because it takes away time from family, friends and neighbours. Moreover, it’s intrinsically harmful because it’s typically done alone and often involves stressful encounters with other drivers or other passengers.

I don’t doubt many commuters would indeed prefer a faster commute, as has been demonstrated by the remarkable increase in the use of cars for the journey to work over the last 50 to 60 years. However I think there’s more complexity to the association between social connectedness and time spent commuting than the Grattan Institute’s analysis acknowledges.

Commuting is the price most of us pay for working. If people don’t work – or if they don’t have a job that’s satisfying – their personal wellbeing and that of their household is likely to suffer severely, both materially and psychologically. That’s ultimately going to have a much bigger impact on social capital than time spent travelling to work.

It’s not clear why commuting should be singled out. There are many other solitary activities we allocate time to because of the pay-off we expect to get from them – for example, study, exercise, household chores and reading. Indeed, some of our non-work travel is also undertaken alone.

Watching a movie is also essentially a solitary pursuit but we rightfully think of it as a social activity because we usually see other people before and after. I think that’s like work – the commute might be spent alone, but once you’re there it’s largely a social activity for most of us, whether in the person of fellow workers, customers or suppliers.

Indeed, a large part of the debate on social capital misses the obvious – much of our connectedness to other people is now related to the workplace rather than the neighbourhood.

Commuting can be a productive time – whether it’s spent reading or working – but it no longer needs to be a total loss in terms of connectedness. Mobile phones now mean we can communicate with others if we want to. If we do, it’s likely to be a more meaningful exchange than an interaction with a stranger on a train. I suspect however that many people actually welcome the respite from contact provided by commuting.

In my view the key issue isn’t the fact of commuting – 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 less. Only 12% take longer than an hour and 3% more than 90 minutes. Melbourne scores very low on IBM’s international Index of Commuter Pain.

There are important reasons why some trips are longer. Workers are prepared to travel further to better jobs because they either pay better or they’re more satisfying. As I pointed out here, some jobs also tend to agglomerate, so most workers can’t live cheek-by-jowl with their workplace.

Then there’re other factors, like the rise of dual income households, that make it hard to minimise commuting times for all members. For most people, the choice of work and residential location is a trade-off between commuting time (for some members of the household) and other practicalities like affordability, housing space and proximity to family and friends.

Longer commutes are also strongly correlated with public transport use. For example, the median commute time by public transport in Melbourne is 55 minutes, ranging from a low of 40 minutes for residents of the city centre to 90 minutes for residents of far-flung Mornington Peninsula. In contrast, the median commute time by car is 30 minutes. The range is relatively narrow, with a low of 25 minutes in middle suburban Bayside and a high of 35 minutes in Mornington Peninsula.

In any event, it isn’t clear that time “recovered” from shorter commutes would be spent on activities that enhance social capital. The report cites a study where 52% of respondents say they’d spend more time with family and friends if their commuting time were significantly reduced. These sorts of hypothetical questions are of doubtful value, but nevertheless I note almost half didn’t nominate family and friends, 51% said they’d exercise more, and 50% nominated more sleep (respondents could nominate multiple answers).

I’d like to know if the sorts of people who are prepared to commute for really long periods might also be people who are driven and ambitious. They might spend any time saved in commuting by working longer hours, or by working at home. They might not be the sorts of personalities who would be likely to mix with others outside the home.

Having said that, I think it’s also very likely there’re some workers with long commutes who simply got it wrong. They might’ve miscalculated their aversion to long commutes when they took the job or chose where to live, or it might’ve been a necessary but unhappy compromise with the interests of other members of the household.

Most of us would like shorter commutes in the same way we’d like many other things to be shorter, cheaper or easier. I don’t think it’s obvious commuting is an important cause of declining social capital in Australia – certainly not among the top priorities for action anyway – but even if one accepts it is, it’s important to understand the complexities of what’s involved, particularly when it comes to considering policy responses.