Transport - general

Jun 22, 2017

Could the average trip to work nearly double by 2030?

The average one-way commute could increase by 28 minutes by 2030 according to Melbourne's Herald Sun. Sounds horrendous but it's scary tabloid journalism

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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.

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4 thoughts on “Could the average trip to work nearly double by 2030?

  1. Zebee

    “Mighty fine average commute”. As How to Lie With Statistics tells us, average is a loaded word. My commute is over an hour each way, similar to the vast majority of people who work on my floor. I don’t know where all the 15 minute commuters are who balance us out, but they sure aren’t working in any company in Sydney I’ve worked for.

    1. Daniel

      The shorter commutes tend to be outside the CBD. Think of all the people that work in supermarkets, banks and other retail out in the suburbs. Some of them might drive five minutes.
      I work in Local Government and do a 27km commute each day (non-CBD, travelling out), but I’m lucky enough to be able to do it out-side(ish) of peak hour and on freeway. It’s about 25 minutes coming in, and up to 30 minutes going home as I hit school zones and school traffic then.
      There’s 9 other people in my team. Two have 20 minute commutes, one travels about 45 minutes but the rest all travel less than 5km which would provide some of those 15 minute (or less) trips to balance out the hour long ones. I’d say the average in our office would be less than 20 minutes.
      CBD’s provide the highest levels of employment density, and also provide higher skilled (and paying) jobs on average than out in the suburbs. But many people are making the decision to prioritise family or personal time over career, myself opting for a lower paying job that I really enjoy in exchange for more personal time.

  2. Ted

    The source for the article, one Rob Tyson, is the PwC Director of Economics and Policy. This is the same group that is pushing privatisation of public transport. This is a classic you-get-the-report-you-pay-for. It is going to be used for more toll roads. It would seem it is more a political document than one based on a good understanding of transport. When the population goes up, the congestion will be worse, making longer trips impossible by car.

  3. rohan storey

    Yes seems likely that business / people will move whatever happens as the population grows in order to shorten commute times. I really can’t get my head around Melbourne having say 5 1/2 or 6 million by then (assuming the 110,000/ year continies), though we’ve gown by that much since ? 2000. By 2030 melb metro will be 3 or 4 years old, with a I suppose more housing and businesses along it, a lot more medium density housing in the middle burbs, high rise in the centre, a lot more fringe housing; maybe by then there will actually be lots of office buildings in say box hill, footscray, Monash area, and maybe that werribee precinct will actually be happening. I suspect though assuming the north-east freeway link built that businesses will emerge around it (in all those light industrial areas – frankston, dandenong, scoresby, ringwood, campbellfield, bundoora, tullamarine, altona) a dispersed ring of at least a mill prob 2 mill people dependent on that road, and only coming into the city for special events (by train !). So by 2030 I predict the western ring road and East link will both be widened).

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