This self-selecting survey of Herald-Sun readers reveals surprisingly high support for congestion charging (source: Herald Sun)

Life in rapidly-growing Melbourne is going to get a lot worse for commuters over the next fifteen years according to a report in the Herald Sun on Monday:

Motorists could spend an extra hour a day commuting to work by 2030 if nothing is done to combat road congestion, experts warn. Data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics shows the average commute time in Melbourne in 2011 was just over 35 minutes — or 7.5 working weeks a year.

Projections by PwC reveal that by 2030, average commute times could increase to 63 minutes under a worst-case scenario — or an extra 56 minutes a day. PwC Director of Economics and Policy, Rob Tyson, said that would mean people spending almost 13.5 working weeks in the car.

An extra 28 minutes one-way to travel to work? That’d make the average commute to work 63 minutes in total; and the same for the journey home. That’s longer than the average commute in Shanghai. What’s scary is 2030’s only thirteen years away. Sounds like Armageddon. No wonder Herald-Sun readers tend to be anti-population growth when they’re regularly served up  seemingly authoritative stuff like this.

But hang on, hang on. It’s dramatic but it’s grossly misleading. Consider that the average one-way journey to work in Sydney is 35 minutes, up by two minutes from 33 minutes ten years ago. That’s an annual average increase of 12 seconds in Australia’s largest city; it hardly suggests an extra 28 minutes one-way by 2030 is likely to happen in Melbourne.

Consider also that cities much larger than Sydney and Melbourne have comparable average journey to work times. According to this comparison, the average one-way commute in London is 37 minutes. It’s 35 minutes in New York and in Tokyo, which is the world’s largest city with around 33 million residents, it’s 34 minutes.

The obvious reason the apocalypse won’t happen is because the “if nothing is done” condition quietly inserted in the article is unrealistic. This qualification enables the usual media histrionics, but it’s inevitable that something will get done. That’s why the average commute in Los Angeles is 28 minutes.

One way cities adapt as they grow in population is to spread further at the fringe, but they also tend to get a lot denser, making origins and destinations closer on average. Angel and Blei found that when population doubles, the area of US cities increases on average by only 70% (see Will Sydney and Melbourne implode as they get bigger and bigger?).

Another way is governments and private investors respond by building more infrastructure. For example, there’s a raft of infrastructure projects underway in Melbourne, including Melbourne Metro, Mernda rail extension, level crossing removals, and various public/private motorway projects.

The most important factor, though, is that both workers and employers adapt to increasing commute times by changing location, consistent with the idea of a travel time budget. Many stay put but many also change address to be closer to work or, in the case of businesses, to be closer to workers. Some workers simply shift to a job that’s closer to home.

The process of adaptation seems to happen with or without active government intervention, but there are ways governments could facilitate the process. For example, they could make redevelopment at higher population and employment densities easier; they could reduce stamp duty and other constraints on relocation; and they could build more and better transport infrastructure.

The biggest bang-for-the buck, though, would probably come from managing existing assets better; in particular, by rationing access to road space through, for example, some form of pricing in congested traffic conditions. That should reduce the economic costs associated with congestion as well as provide more priority road space for buses, trams and trucks.

The duration of the average journey to work is remarkably stable over time. Moreover, it’s much the same in Melbourne in the inner, middle and outer rings. There’s a definite possibility it could increase modestly by 2030 depending on policy settings, but it’s not going to nearly double in duration like the scary numbers promoted by the Herald Sun suggest.