Super commutes (90 minutes or more, one-way) in Melbourne (source data: VISTA)
Super commutes in Melbourne (source data: VISTA)

I’m pleased to see a researcher at RMIT, Todd Denham, is doing a study on “super commutes” i.e. journeys to work that take an inordinately long time door-to-door. This is one of those directly policy-relevant issues that too often get over-looked by academia (see Is academia researching the urban issues that matter?).

The RMIT study won’t address all or even most of the key issues around this topic. It’s only looking at a particular aspect – the impact on regional economies of people who commute from regional towns to major cities – and it appears to rely on a self-selected sample. But still, I expect it’ll throw useful light on this issue when it’s completed.

What is a “super commute”? That depends on what’s considered an acceptable travel time. Read this article in The Age and this one in the Herald Sun and it seems the popular view is a super commute is around 90 to 120 minutes one-way.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define a super commute as 90 minutes or more one-way. That’s almost three times the average one-way commute by car in Melbourne but not that much more than the average 79-minute one-way commute by outer suburban public transport users.

Here’re some of the key things we already know about super commutes made by residents of Melbourne (it doesn’t include data on regional residents):

One: they’re much less common than you’d guess from the breathless stories in the media. VISTA data shows only 6.9% of motorised journeys to work in Melbourne are super commutes (and 3.4% take two hours or more).

Two: a third of super commutes are made by public transport even though this mode only accounts for a fifth of all motorised travel in Melbourne. Nevertheless, in absolute terms twice as many are made by private vehicles simply because the former accounts for four fifths of all motorised work trips.

Three: most super commutes are temporary; they’re made by workers who’ve changed residence or employer and are tolerating a very long journey to work while looking for a closer home or job. Some super commutes are made by workers who’re part-time or who mostly work at home and commute occasionally; they feel the lifestyle advantages of living remotely justify the long travel time.

Four: on average, super commuters have higher incomes and higher levels of education than those with shorter commutes. The sorts of jobs they have are either concentrated in a few locations like the CBD or simply aren’t that common. Their higher earnings justify the long trip.

Five: there may be physical and mental health issues associated with super commutes, although an alternative interpretation is the sort of people who suffer these conditions might also be the sort of people who select for very long commutes. Another view is the health impacts apply mainly to commutes of two hours or more one-way.

So although the idea of legions of commuters forced to drive against their will for an hour and a half or more one-way on a daily basis is a perennial favourite of the media, it’s a gross exaggeration. In Melbourne, two thirds of commutes by car take less than 40 minutes and four fifths take less than 50 minutes.

The vast bulk of workers don’t have a super commute – they change job and/or residential location to keep their commute time within what they regard as a tolerable limit (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?).

So far as RMIT’s interest in the impact of super commuters on regional towns is concerned, I expect the net effect is positive. They earn more than they could locally but spend much of it on local services, creating jobs in industries like retail, trades, education, and recreation. Unless planners and builders respond by increasing supply, it will increase housing values, providing a windfall for existing home owners but making it a bit harder for their children.

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  1. I suspect the percentage of car-based that originate in the inner city and take two hours or more is over-stated; my guess is some of VISTA’s respondents coded work-related journeys (e.g. a country work trip) as commutes. If one-way trips longer than three hours are removed to correct for this possibility, then 4.5% of inner city one-way commutes by car take between 120 and 180 minutes.