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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