Mar 21, 2018

Why does it matter that most jobs aren’t in the city centre?

Understanding that most jobs are outside the city centre is vital, because the challenges they present for transport infrastructure policy are more complex and more politically difficult

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Average journey to work trip time by region and mode, Melbourne (source data: VISTA)

I made the point last time that, contrary to popular claims, the city centres of Melbourne and Sydney (1) aren’t capturing “most” of metropolitan job growth, and (2) still only account for around one fifth of all jobs in their respective metropolitan areas (see Are the jobs in the centre of the city?).

Although the city centre is by far the densest concentration of jobs within each Australian capital city, most jobs are in the suburbs. In Melbourne, more than 80% of jobs are over 2 km from the city centre; 70% are over 5 km; 50% are over 13 km; and 30% are over 20 km (see The jobs are in the suburbs).

Why is it important to understand that most jobs aren’t in the city centre? And that most growth in jobs isn’t in the centre? Because policy must respond to the actual geography of employment. But there’s more to it; jobs located outside the city centre present some key issues for policy (to avoid arguments about where the city centre ends, I’ll consider only unambiguosly “suburban” jobs that are more than 5 km from the centre):

  • Suburban jobs aren’t generally well-served by public transport. That contrasts with jobs in the city centre that are directly accessible from most parts of the metropolitan area by the train and tram systems. The metropolitan mass transit system in a city like Melbourne is radial; it’s a legacy system with all lines converging on the CBD. Some suburban jobs are on a rail line, but that offers both firms and workers only a small proportion of the accessibility of the CBD.
  • A very high proportion of suburban jobs are in locations where driving is relatively easy. Again, that contrasts with the city centre, where high parking costs and extreme traffic congestion make driving uncompetitive with public transport for most commuters. Even if access to suburban jobs by public transport were greatly improved, significant mode shift wouldn’t occur unless commuting by car were somehow rendered considerably more onerous.
  • Most suburban jobs aren’t in large or dense activity centres. Of the 70% of Melbourne’s jobs that are more than 5 km from the centre, only one fifth are in the 31 largest suburban centres (none of which are within a bull’s roar of the scale and density of the CBD). The other four fifths are dispersed, many in minor business parks and industrial estates, as well as local strip centres and malls. Most are population-serving and wouldn’t get a net benefit from higher densities (see Where are the suburban jobs?).
  • Jobs in the suburbs pay a lot less on average than jobs in the CBD. The average worker in Melbourne commutes to a job in the suburbs, not to one in a city centre office tower.

The high-pay “knowledge” jobs in the city centre are vital to the regional and national economies and warrant attention from city managers. But the transport infrastructure requirements of workers are more closely related to how many of them are commuting, as well as when and by what mode, rather than to their per capita economic contribution. There are many more workers who commute within the suburbs than to  the city centre.

In developing policy to address commutes to suburban jobs, it’s critical policy-makers understand that 75% of journeys to work originating in the middle ring suburbs of a city like Melbourne are currently undertaken by private vehicle. The corresponding figure for the outer ring suburbs is 85% and even in the inner ring suburbs (roughly Zone 1) private vehicles are used for 55% of commutes.

The kicker is the average commute by car in Melbourne is much the same in all rings and takes considerably less time in all cases than the average commute by public transport (see exhibit). Indeed, the average journey to work by car originating in the outer ring takes less time than the average commute by public transport from the inner ring.

Devising and implementing workable policies to transport workers to non-city centre jobs is a challenging task. It’s more complex than simply calling for more cross-town rail lines and/or roads in the suburbs.

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3 thoughts on “Why does it matter that most jobs aren’t in the city centre?

  1. Horst (Oz) Kayak

    The VATS-VISTA data sets from 1994 to 2014 are an excellent travel time pattern source, and well used in the article.
    Orbital travel patterns as a segment of the journey-to-work journey are less than 30%.
    The base logic behind what needs to be provided in the form of a PT service is not to serve work purposes.
    Reliability of bus schedules is the greatest concern based on feedback from the TCPA network.

  2. Adam Ford

    Excellent stuff. And it should be pointed out that the actual employment locations in the suburbs are extremely dispersed in Melbourne, whereas Sydney has so far done a better job of centralising suburban jobs, which coupled with the less radial nature of their heavy rail network means a SIGNIFICANTLY larger % of Sydney’s suburban jobs are accessed by heavy rail, whereas Melbourne’s suburbs are almost wholly car dependent for the daily commute.
    Melbourne needs to shift to a pattern of facilitating radial movements into properly facilitated activity centres. Which is why I say a suburban orbital heavy rail tunnel is needed to facilitate the future >>>

    1. Tom the first and best

      Buses, with decent frequencies, routes and priority measures (relatively rare in Melbourne) have a significant role to play in orbital PT.

      Orbital rail does not have to be in tunnels, they should in fact be avoided where possible as the add to the cost significantly and make the stations less convenient to access. Orbital skyrail would be preferable in many cases.

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