Mean commuting distances, times and speeds by mode, Melbourne SD, 2007–08

This story tells us of five ways that commuting ruins your life. Evidently commuting (i.e. travelling to work) causes back and neck problems, breaks up marriages, makes you fat, destroys the planet, and makes you depressed.

It’s also commonly blamed for undermining social capital and sending workers who drive broke. Commuting clearly has an image problem.

All other things being equal, a shorter commute is of course better than a long one (Fn 1). But there’s more to the story.

Commuting is like other activities, such as sleeping and studying, where the pay-off is what matters more than the activity itself. It gets you to work so you can earn an income to pay the rent, support dependents and enjoy the better things of life. Work is a key way that individuals contribute positively to society and it’s a crucial way to build and maintain self-esteem.

Commuting is the trade-off, or price, for the benefits of working. Those who can travel faster have a bigger choice of jobs and a bigger choice of living arrangements. Like eating, commuting is one of those things most of us have to do on a frequent and regular basis, but it’s worth it.

There’s a lot of research which indicates that on average travellers operate with a fixed time budget. When given a reduced travel time (e.g. because of an infrastructure improvement), commuters tend on average to spend the time saving on travelling to a more distant but better job, or to a better residential location.

The journey to work is traditionally seen as dead time but technology has dramatically improved what we can do while on the move. Commuters can of course listen to radio, recordings and audio books. The (hands free) mobile phone was a huge step forward – it enabled motorists to make important private phone calls for personal or business purposes.

Public transport travellers can also make phone calls although privacy is limited. They can however play games, read – whether for work or pleasure – and in some circumstances use a keyboard while on the move.

Contrary to the mythology, most commutes aren’t actually especially time consuming. In Melbourne, for example, the average one-way journey to work takes 36 minutes and 54% take 30 minutes or less. Only 12% take longer than an hour and 3% more than 90 minutes. In the Greater Western Sydney Region the duration of the average journey to work is 31 minutes. More than a third of commutes (37%) take less than 20 minutes.

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. Another US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work.

Thus only a small minority have seriously time-consuming commutes. In Australian cities, many in this group commute by train to the city centre from outer suburban and peri-urban areas. They’ve capitalised on the speed of trains to extend their residential options.

In fact commutes by train are much longer on average than car commutes. Consider that the average 36 minute commute by Melburnians breaks down to an average 30 minute commute by car and 55 minute commute by train. Average journey to work times are likely to increase in a city where the mode share of trains is also increasing.

It’s also important to consider if the small group who take on “super commutes” would, if given a shorter journey, spend the “saved” time exercising away all that accumulated fat, helping with household management, or participating actively in community life. An alternative interpretation is they’re mostly the sort of personalities (e.g. workaholics) who self-select for long commutes.

It would be very hard for policy-makers to reduce commuting times significantly. As already noted, workers tend to travel in accord with a time budget. Further, as I discussed here, households choose a residential location having regard to a range of factors, such as the job locations of multiple members, access to schools and universities, and many different social purposes.

There’s scope however to mitigate some of the impacts of work travel. While most workers understandably focus on travelling time, the journey to work is one of the longest trips in terms of distance that we make, reflecting how important it is for us. For example, the average one-way journey to work in Melbourne is almost 15 km (although only 13% are “super commutes” exceeding 30 km).

Most commuting is by private vehicles (about 75% in Melbourne). Higher fuel taxes (e.g. reinstatement of fuel tax indexation) would encourage more efficient cars. Reductions in stamp duty on dwelling purchases would tackle the current disincentive for workers to live closer to their jobs.

A shorter commute is better than a long one. But judgements about the appropriate length also needs to take account of the benefits provided by the journey to work.

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(Fn 1) Not always. This study by Redmond and Mokhtarian found 7% of US commuters say their journey to work isn’t long enough.