Cars & traffic

Mar 23, 2016

How much time do we really spend on work-related travel?

The duration of the average work-related trip in Melbourne is consistent with other large world cities in developed countries but the average doesn't show there's considerable variation by mode

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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).
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6 thoughts on “How much time do we really spend on work-related travel?

  1. Dylan Nicholson

    “The 20 minute limit for Melbourne promoted by Victoria’s Planning Minister is absurd…”

    Or you could argue that what’s absurd is the way we’ve allowed ourselves to be ‘normalised’ into the notion that it’s reasonable to have to look for work that might be over an hour’s travel from one’s home in order to find a decent job.

    But I agree entirely with John above – it’s not so much the time that’s an issue, it’s the overall balance of pros/cons in the time and mode that we spend commuting that matters. If Melbourne suddenly switched to 80% “active” modes of travel and our peak time roads were suddenly emptied of noisy, polluting, dangerous cars full of drivers largely incapable of using their time productively, but the average commute time went *up*, I’d still think this a good thing.

  2. David J Richardson

    VISTA07 and 09 excluded travel made as a professional driver (e.g. delivery person, train driver).

    The purpose of travel “for work” got categorised in three main ways:

    Something picked-up or delivered for work
    Employer’s business (e.g. going to a meeting)

    Not testifying that remains the same for VISTA12, because as noted the documentation is not out.

  3. Alan Davies

    Socrates #2:

    Two points to note:

    1: Cities do spawn multiple centres Melbourne, only 15% of jobs are in the extended CBD; 70% are more than 5 km from the CBD; and 50% are more than 13 km from the CBD.

    2: The constant circa 30 minute “time budget” is an average of all travellers; at the level of individuals, a lot are prepared/happy to travel further and some want to travel less.

  4. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    This accurate summary of, and commentary on recent VISTA travel time use data is well put. VATS 1994-2002, the format of which is used in the later VISTA model outcomes already gave similar results for the ABS defined 31 Local Governments in the Melbourne Statistical Division (MSD).
    The only point not emphasised in the above is that close to only 20% of MSD trips generated are work related commute trips.
    In a discussion on travel time use management it is to be noted the greatest amount of travel quantified by trip count, in the total MSD transport system is on a Saturday between 10.30 t0 11.30 am about 40 weeks of the year.
    There are VATS-VISTA boffins capable of quantifying trips made for work related purposes. Meaning the trips by tradesmen, service staff, salesmen or regular commuters are separable.
    Advertisers who locate hoardings with specific content include such information in their decisions all the time.
    Even walkscore data is influencing advertising formats and locations.

  5. Socrates

    Marchetti’s constant (which I agree with as a theory) does highlight a physical reality about the practical limits to city growth. Unless cities spawn multiple activity centres, at the current limits of safe freeway travel speed (100 km/hr), it follows that a city with a single CBD will not get much bigger than a 50 km/hr radius. Since the total commute time includes 5 to 10 minutes travel from the end of the freeway to home or work, the practical limit is more like a 35-40km radius. And that assumes the freeway functions at an average speed of 100km/hr. If speed drops to a more typical 60 to 80 km/hr the city radius shrinks to 30km or less.

    All this highlights that urban growth boundaries are not so silly. Adelaide is finally introducing one, not before time.

  6. John

    League tables like this invite the interpretation that less time is always better, so public transport ‘scores badly.’

    But it’s worth remembering that the disutility of time varies according to the circumstances. A relaxed car trip may be much preferred to same time spent in a crowded, unreliable bus. A comfortable long distance train trip may be preferred to a shorter (in time) but congested car trip. Etc.

    And of course what the implications are for policy is a moot point. It would be silly to say ‘we should focus investment on travel by the mode that yields the shortest trips – cars’ because if everyone was driving the roads would be more congested and those trips might not be so short.

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