Work-related travel by time in Melbourne (source: VISTA)
Work-related travel by time in Melbourne (source: VISTA)

The average work-related trip in metropolitan Melbourne takes 33 minutes one-way according to the new edition of the delightfully named VISTA household travel survey (Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel & Activity). Note that work-related travel is not identical with commuting. (1)

But the average doesn’t tell us about the distribution of trip times in this metropolis of 4.5 million residents. The exhibit is especially useful here; it shows that 54% of work-related trips by all modes take 30 minutes or more, 30% take 45 minutes or more, and 17% take 60 minutes or more.

The private vehicle is the dominant mode. It captures a majority of trips in all time categories up to 54 minutes. Workers even prefer it over walking for trips of less than five minutes and ten minutes duration!

Rather than indicating abject laziness, that’s probably because many of these driving trips are made in relatively uncongested conditions and so are a kilometre or two in distance.

Public transport barely registers for trips of less than 30 minutes duration. It doesn’t become the dominant mode until trips exceed 70 minutes, however there aren’t many trips that take that long.

Only 3% of trips could be regarded as “super-long” (i.e. take 90 minutes or longer) and they could easily be explained by special circumstances e.g. workers who are changing job or home location; trip to a distant client.

In fact the average work-related trip by private vehicle – the dominant mode – averages 27 minutes in the inner ring, 28 minutes in the middle ring and 33 minutes in the outer suburbs.

Shortening work-related times is nevertheless an important objective of policy because it would increase both the effective labour market for firms and the number of jobs workers could reach within a tolerable travel time. But it’s important not to peddle at best naive, or at worst cynical, dreams like the Prime Minister’s “30-minute city” (see Is Turnbull’s “30-minute city” all spin or a really useful idea?).

It’s evident the scale of change required to put every Melbourne worker within 30 minutes maximum travel time by walking or public transport of their job would be enormous and patently unrealistic. The 20 minute limit for Melbourne promoted by Victoria’s Planning Minister is absurd given only 30% of work-related trips in Melbourne – most of them by car – take less than 20 minutes.

Nevertheless, there’s a real need to put effort into reducing travel times by public transport to major employment concentrations such as the CBD and major suburban centres. Projects that increase train frequencies – like Melbourne Metro, level crossing removals and upgraded signalling – are a good start.

I expect that public transport mode share for short trips (measured by distance) can be improved by increasing frequencies and improving transfers, but I think walk and wait time mean it won’t make major gains in short trips measured by time. The most potential for improving work-related public transport travel time seems to be in medium to long duration trips.

Travel times by private vehicle are short on average but there are some locations – Wyndham in the outer west is one – where trip times are long and there’s a clear need for improved road infrastructure.


  1. Curiously, the VISTA boffins have chosen to present this data as “work-related”. I can’t find a definition on the web site, but I expect the term covers both commuting and travel undertaken as part of the job. Based on BTS data for Sydney, it’s likely the average time for the commute by itself is higher (update: it’s 37 minutes in Melbourne).