Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten claimed in an address to CEDA last month that commutes in Australia are taking too long:
Today, nine out of ten of us spend more than 90 minutes a day travelling to and from work.
Excessive time consumed by commuting, especially by car, is frequently linked to various social ills, particularly obesity, poor mental health, family breakdown and loss of social capital.
Mr Shorten went on to ask if we really want “a nation where parents are never home in time to kick a ball in the backyard, help out with the homework or share a family meal?”
This is a common stereotype but, as I’ve pointed out quite a few times before, the idea that most commutes take a long time simply isn’t true. e.g. see Does the typical outer suburban worker have a long commute? (1)
So I was pleased to see ABC’s FactCheck unit review Mr Shorten’s assertion and put up its finding on Thursday. It concluded that the Leader of the Opposition erred on this occasion:
Mr Shorten’s claim that nine out of 10 Australians spend more than 90 minutes a day travelling to and from work is wrong.
The ABC looked at a number of sources in reaching its conclusion.
- The national Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey: it says 19% of workers spend more than 90 minutes a day commuting both ways.
- The Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA) survey: it says 24% of Melbourne workers commute for more than 90 minutes a day.
- The Sydney Household Travel Survey (SHTS): it says 23% of Sydneysiders have a journey to and from work that exceeds 90 minutes per day.
So the ABC is quite right in calling Mr Shorten on this specific assertion. Indeed, another doubtful aspect of his claim is the choice of 45 minutes as the (one-way) benchmark for what constitutes an acceptable upper limit for commuting.
Given the average one-way work trip in Sydney takes 35 minutes, it’s unreasonably demanding. Most of the discussions I’ve seen set 60 minutes as a reasonable one-way limit. That probably follows from the long-held idea that on average travelers set a two hour daily travel time budget.
But there’s more to this issue than a “gotcha”. The most important point of course is that the typical commute is not excessively long. As noted, the duration of the average one-way journey to work in Sydney is 35 minutes. That’s just 3% higher than it was ten years previously.
Another point is that although long commutes are often portrayed as a negative consequence of car use, they’re much more strongly associated with public transport travel. As the exhibit shows, 79% of one-way commutes by train in Sydney take longer than 45 minutes, compared to less than 13% by car.
Lengthy commutes are also often seen as an issue that’s largely limited to fringe areas; in fact Mr Shorten claims he was referring in his speech to work travel by outer suburban residents.
When it comes to train travel, commutes from the outer suburbs are indeed quite time consuming; in Sydney they take 82 minutes one-way on average, compared to 66 minutes for inner suburban train passengers.
But cars dominate the journey to work in the outer suburbs of Sydney, where they account for 85% of commutes. Trains carry just 8% of outer suburban workers, largely because only a small proportion work in the city centre.
The thing about commutes by car is they’re relatively short. The average outer suburban one-way commute by a driver in Sydney is 26 minutes. That’s much faster than the average commute by train but it’s also quicker than the 30 minute average one-way commute of inner suburban drivers.
So even in terms of outer suburbs, Mr Shorten’s claim that 90% of (two-way) commutes take more than 90 minutes is almost certainly wrong. (2)
So why is the idea that the typical commute is unreasonably lengthy so pervasive? One explanation is rail commuters; they account for 14% of commutes in Sydney (same as 10 years prior).
The main reason though is probably that although drivers with time-consuming commutes (e.g. over 60 minutes one-way) make up a small minority of all journeys to work, in absolute terms they still constitute a pretty big number.
That applies especially in the outer suburbs where cars dominate and where available road capacity to accommodate peak period travel is often limited. As I noted here, there will also be some smaller geographies like particular outer suburbs where workers with long commutes are more concentrated e.g. closer to rail stations.
The value of time spent commuting ultimately comes down to what the worker is getting for it. For many, the option of kicking a ball in the backyard might not be available unless they take that higher paying job further away; or unless they live in that distant dwelling with more amenities, like a backyard.
There’s a lot of evidence that increasing the speed of commutes doesn’t on average lead to less time spent travelling. Many workers instead choose to travel further in the same time i.e. they use the time saving to expand their range of job and/or housing choices.
The key planning and infrastructure problem with commuting isn’t how long it takes; the key issues for policy-makers to address are the distances workers commute (they’ve been getting longer) and the modes they use (still mostly cars).
I don’t have an exact comparison with Mr Shorten’s metric in the case of the outer suburbs, but I’ve previously discussed data showing that 88% of outer suburban residents in Melbourne have a one-way commute of less than 60 minutes, see Does the typical outer suburban worker have a long commute?