Transport - general

Mar 24, 2014

Do outer suburban workers have extra long commutes?

The popular idea that outer suburban workers spend two or more hours a day commuting is exaggerated. The key issue isn't time but how far they commute and how they get there

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Average commute times in Melbourne, 2007-08 (Source data: BITRE)

Journalist Shane Green linked to a film made in 1954 by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) in his column in The Age on Saturday.

Mr Green says most of the warnings sounded in Planning for Melbourne’s future 60 years ago are as relevant today as they were then. He highlights the Board’s concerns at the number of workers spending more than an hour commuting to and from work, overcrowded trains, and new fringe suburbs built with inadequate services.

I discussed this film a few years ago (Were those the good old days?) and agree with Mr Green on most points.

But I think it’s regrettable he repeats the exaggeration that workers living on the suburban fringe today typically spend more than two hours commuting to and from work.

Instead of one hour, think more like two for those on the fringe. The cities of Whittlesea and Wyndham launched campaigns this week to get funding for the transport crisis their booming new areas are facing.

This is more than just about inconvenience. There is a huge social impact when family members are having to spend so much time away from home, combined with the stress of such long commutes.

This is one of those stereotypes that refuses to go away. The fact is average commute times don’t vary a lot geographically within large cities.

For example, the average one-way commute by workers living in Melbourne is 36 minutes and only 12% take more than an hour; these times are increasing with city size but slowly.

In the outer suburbs it’s 38 minutes; in the middle ring suburbs it’s 36 minutes; and in the inner city it’s 32 minutes.

The pattern is similar in other Australian cities. According to the Urban Research Centre at UWS, the average one-way commute by workers living in the Greater Western Sydney region is 31 minutes.

This analysis of US Census data found that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes.

The limited variation in commute times across cities is primarily due to three factors. First, the great majority of jobs are in the suburbs where the great majority of workers live. Second, the fastest way of accessing those jobs is by car.

The third factor is workers tend on average to have a consistent travel time ‘budget‘. Suburban workers are compensated for the lower density of jobs relative to the city centre by higher travel speeds due in large measure to lower congestion.

Faster speeds mean they can expand their access to job opportunities by travelling further on the same time ‘budget’.

I expect most of the minority of outer suburban workers who actually do commute more than two hours a day are mainly public transport users. That’s because longer commutes are strongly correlated with public transport use.

For example, the median one-way commute by public transport in Melbourne takes 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.

Driving is often portrayed as the stressful way to commute but in comparison with public transport it’s relatively quick. The median one-way commute by car in Melbourne is only 30 minutes. The range is relatively narrow too, with a low of 25 minutes in middle suburban Bayside and a high of 35 minutes in Mornington Peninsula.

There’s a stereotype that long commutes have a “huge social impact”, but that’s not always or even mostly the case. Some two hour plus commuters tolerate a long journey to work because it’s a temporary assignment; or they might have taken on a new job and plan to move closer in due course.

For others, it will be a conscious trade-off between commute times and their preferred residential location. They include multi-income households where the ability of all members to simultaneously minimise the journey to work is constrained.

And some households make a conscious decision to trade-off the benefits of a suburban or hobby farm lifestyle for a long commute (invariably by train to the CBD) by one or more members.

If given a faster commute, it’s likely many will take the opportunity to travel further within the same time ‘budget’. That’s why projects like Melbourne’s East-West Link don’t ultimately “save” travel time; on average, commuters take advantage of the faster initial speeds provided by a freeway improvement to increase their employment and housing options.

The key planning and infrastructure problem with commuting isn’t how long it takes; the key issues for policy-makers to address are the distance workers commute (it’s been getting longer) and what mode they use (still mostly cars).

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10 thoughts on “Do outer suburban workers have extra long commutes?

  1. Ruth National Growth Areas Alliance

    Alan, average commuting times obscure what happens in particular areas. You seem to acknowledge this and then dismiss it as atypical. Yet sitting on congested roads is the lived reality for outer suburban residents right around the nation. Our website, relates the stories. The data also shows that commuting times and distances have increased in Melbourne and Sydney, despite governments saying reducing them is a goal. This is why we need better road connections,better public transport and a range of jobs closer to where people live.

  2. Alice O

    Dylan, my husband and I have lived here 9 years. I guess we were naively assumed that we would get infrastructure in due course. But now it’s well over due. When we had children I resigned from my career in research because having us both in the rat race whilst our children were in day care for 12 hours a day was not good for any of us. But we do love it here. Wyndham is a fab place to live and I feel it’s worth fighting for.

  3. Alice O

    Alan, your blog singles out Wyndham’s and Whittlesea’s campaigns for better transport and say they are adding to the ‘stereotype’ which’ refuses to go away’. It’s not a stereotype for these municipalities, it’s reality. Daily grind. It’s not going away because it’s getting worse. The planning department continue to release land here, but completely ignore our struggling infrastructure. The roads and transport departments don’t care less because we are are governed by safe labor seats.

    The results of Wyndham’s race to the city show that cycling and training were by far the fastest modes:

    1) 57min – Cycle & Train – Departed from Point Cook
    2) 57mins – Cycle & Train – Departed from Tarneit
    3) 1hr07mins – Cycle – Departed from Point Cook
    4) 1h08mins – Cycle – Departed from Tarneit
    5) 1hr09mins – Car & Train – Departed from Point Cook
    6) 1hr09mins – Public Transport – Departed from Wyndham Vale
    7) 1hr09mins – Cycle & Train – Departed from Wyndham Vale
    8) 1hr09mins – Car & Train – Departed from Wyndham Vale
    9) 1hr10mins – Car & Train – Departed from Tarneit
    10) 1hr12mins – Public Transport – Departed from Tarneit
    11) 1hr13mins – Speedboat – Departed from Werribee South (unofficial participant)
    12) 1hr24mins – Cycle – Departed from Wyndham Vale
    13) 1hr27mins – Public Transport – Departed from Point Cook
    14) 1hr37mins – Car – Departed from Point Cook
    15) 1hr40mins – Car – Departed from Wyndham Vale
    16) 1hr41mins – Car – Departed from Tarneit

    And it’s not just roads, it’s schools as well. My son’s school opened last year with 280 students. This year there are over 800 in a school built for 475. All the schools in Point Cook are in the same situation. Something needs to be done yesterday.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Alice O – I’m curious, do people move to Point Cook really not anticipating that level of traffic/length of commute times? FWIW I moved to where I live now knowing I would have a long commute, but at least it doesn’t involve any driving so I can generally use the time productively.

  5. Alan Davies

    Alice O #5:

    As noted in the article, some workers resident in the outer suburbs do have long commutes but they’re not the typical or representative outer suburban commuter. They tend to be those who use public transport and mostly work in the CBD. Of course if you look at smaller areas like single municipalities or single suburbs you will get more variation, but overall the “typical” (or average) outer suburbanite works in the suburbs and commutes by car. Commutes by car are much shorter on average than those by public transport.

  6. Alice O

    I am astounded by these results saying that outer suburbs take just 38 mins on average to get into the city. I live in Point Cook. It takes our residents between 30-60 mins just to get out of our suburb and onto the freeway or train before they can even start their commute into the city (that’s a 6km drive – up to an hour).

    Residents complain daily in our community facebook group that their commute takes them well over an hour into the city – up to two or two and a half on particularly bad days – each way. In fact, one woman sent me a message this morning saying it takes her an hour and 15 mins just to get from Point Cook to Williamstown (20 kms).

    Wyndham City Council’s Race to the city last week showed that commuting to the CBD took between 57 mins and an hour and 40 mins, depending on mode of transport.

    Narratives like these make our residents’ blood boil. Unless you have been here, driving down Point Cook Road at 7am trying to get onto the freeway or a park at our train station, you will never understand what we are going through. These sorts of comments undermine the daily stresses of our residents, stresses that impact family life and work performance.

    Perhaps this research, from 2.5 years ago, is too far out of date to be referring to in current times. Wyndham is one of the largest growth areas in the country. We are stuck in traffic on Struggle St and we need action by the Government to fix the mess they (past and present) have created for us out here.

  7. Steve777

    I used to work in the Sydney CBD and lived close to a railway station about 10km out. My daily commute averaged 35 minutes each way, including 21 minutes travel time by train. Travelling by bus from suburbs about the same distance out can take 45 minutes or more. Even in the best of circumstances travel by public transport is slow.

    However, I used public transport because driving would have taken as long or longer with the congestion and the cost of parking would have been several times the cost of my weekly ticket. People leave their cars at home when congestion and lack of parking negate the advantages of travelling to work in your own private metal and glass bubble.

  8. melburnite

    All very interesting – I guess we only hear about the suffering for people with long commutes who generally work in the CBD – like the the subject of the 7.30 report the other day who lives in Heallesville, and drives the the CBD using the Eastern, which he said often slowed to a crawl ages before Punt Road (which then frees up again, so much for EWL logic). But Healesville ? Thats obviously very peri-urban and is bound to take ages !

  9. Alan Davies

    robin inglis #1:

    It’d be helpful to see how you arrived at that figure. I note that it’s still only around a quarter of Wyndham residents i.e. it’s large but it’s not typical. As we look at smaller areas we should expect the variation to get greater. It partly reflects, I suspect, the relatively high % of workers in the west of Melbourne, compared to other Growth Areas, who work in the city centre and consequently use public transport.

  10. robin inglis

    Hi Allan, You state that “The popular idea that outer suburban workers spend two or more hours a day commuting is exaggerated.”
    The reality for Wyndham residents is that 26.2% of Wyndham residents are spending more than two hours a day commuting compared with a Melbourne average of 11.6%. Source VIC Health Indicators survey 2011.
    We are doing our own research on April 2nd with a Race to the City involving car, train and bicycle.
    Further details
    Robin Inglis

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