Does commuting erode social capital?

(click) John Faine interviews Pallas (ALP), Mees (Greens) and Mulder (Lib) on 774. 'Spirited' exchange between Faine and Mees at circa 29.00

In his new book, Disconnected, Dr Andrew Leigh argues that social capital, defined as the level of trust and reciprocity between people, has declined in Australia. I’m not convinced, however, that one of the culprits he fingers for this loss is guilty.

Several measures indicate social capital is on the wane – organisational membership, church attendance, political party membership, union membership, sporting participation, cultural attendance and volunteering.

Dr Leigh identifies seven key causes of this decline: long working hours, the feminisation of the workplace, television, ethnic diversity, impersonal technologies, tipping points and car commuting.

I want to look at his argument on car commuting, which I briefly alluded to once before.

He says that time spent commuting is bad for social capital because it is time not spent with family, community and friends:

Commuters are less likely to be active members of sporting clubs or community organisations. And commuting can affect family life: one in five men who works full-time spends more hours commuting than with his children

It is also negative for social capital because most commuting is done alone. Moreover, “being stuck in traffic for 45 minutes a day inevitably means a spate of small annoyances…..taken individually these are minor annoyances but as they add up, driver frustration can lead us to form an increasingly hostile view of our fellow Australians”.

Dr Leigh relies on a study by the Australia Institute which finds that the typical worker spends 3 hours and 37 minutes per week commuting to and from work. Melbourne commuters travel for an average of 4 hours and 22 minutes per week while the average in Sydney is 4 hours and 43 minutes. Canberra residents have the shortest average commute at 2 hours and 29 minutes per week.

The Australia Institute survey uses the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey. It has some limitations – it doesn’t identify mode or distinguish trips with multiple purposes. The alternative is to look at individual cities using more specialised tools like the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity (VISTA). It sampled 43,800 people in Melbourne whereas the Australia Institute’s study looked at 13,000 across Australia. VISTA indicates the median commute in Melbourne is 60 minutes per day, or five hours per week (I’ve looked at commuting time in Melbourne in more detail before).

I’m not so sure that commuting by car is as poisonous for social capital as Dr Leigh contends. Why single out commuting? Yes, time spent commuting is time spent almost entirely alone (even on public transport) but so is time devoted to numerous other activities like sleeping, reading and gardening that we tend to do alone.

It might be that many of the workers who spend a lot of time commuting are the type of people who, were their commute shortened, would not use the additional time for family or community activities. They might instead simply work longer hours.

But the most important issue is that putting the finger on commuting time would only make sense if it had increased significantly over the same period that social capital has waned. Travel time is a complex matter that can vary from one city to another according to factors like metropolitan size and structure. But overall, while average commuting distance has increased significantly, average commuting time in cities like Melbourne has increased only slowly.

I’m also not sure why Dr Leigh specifically singles out car commuting as the culprit (especially since HILDA doesn’t differentiate by mode) and seems to exonerate public transport from the decline in social capital.

In Melbourne, the median commute time by car is 30 minutes and this is pretty uniform, varying from a low of 25 minutes in Mornington Peninsula to a high of 35 minutes in Bayside. Public transport commute times are much longer. They average 55 minutes and range from 40 minutes in the City of Melbourne to 90 minutes for residents of Mornington Peninsula.

Nor am I persuaded that public transport really provides a distinctly more social experience – in the sense of connecting people in non-trivial ways – than driving by car. Being a Canberra resident, perhaps he doesn’t use public transport very much.

Some people commute on public transport with friends (whereas almost all car commuters travel alone), but from my observations the vast bulk of public transport commuters prefer to keep to themselves, read or listen to music. They don’t tend to talk to strangers. People are ‘there’ together,  but they’re in their own worlds individually.

They might occasionally share a collective sigh of frustration at the latest outrage by Metro Trains. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say these sorts of exchanges build reciprocity and trust in the same way that (say) being an active member of a church or playing sport with team mates does.

And I’m not by any means convinced that the minor annoyances of driving are collectively any worse than those of public transport. We’ve all seen people who put their bags on the seat even when the trains are crowded, or crow loudly on mobile phones, or insist on getting on before others have exited the carriage, or commit a thousand other small ‘crimes’.

I’d also expect hands-free mobile phones would have some positive benefits for drivers, enabling those who commute for long periods to talk with others, make appointments, keep in touch, and generally do the myriad things that being connected with others requires.

So I think car commuting’s taking a bum rap. It’s worth noting that there’s some research indicating that while a little over half of commuters would like to reduce their travelling time, very few actually want a zero commute time (and 7% think their commute is too brief!).

Postscript: back in the dim dark ages when I was a child, it seems to me that public transport was much more social than it is now. I used to travel frequently on buses, trams and trains with my elderly grandmother who always seemed to strike up a conversation about the weather or something equally mundane with every other old codger. And it wasn’t that she was particularly outgoing – I observed these sorts of exchanges between ‘pensioners’ countless time when I was on my way to and from school. Strangers just chatted to each other on public transport as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Perhaps it’s just the way I recall it.

17 Comments on “Does commuting erode social capital?”

  1. justin p lynch says:

    Be courteous!! He is Professor Leigh, prior to sublimating to public service he was (I’m pretty sure)youngest fully tenured professor of Economics at ANU – youngest in line of Gruen, Garnaut et al.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’m well aware of that and actually looked into it first. Since he’s now a Member of Parliament he doesn’t appear to refer to himself as ‘Professor’ – I just followed his lead.

      Perhaps some learned academic can enlighten us, but I see ‘Dr’ as a degree and ‘Prof’ as a position (which Dr Leigh no longer holds). Perhaps I should’ve referred to him as something like the Right Honourable?

  2. justin lynch says:

    Alan, Touche

    I just wanted readers to be aware of his “eminence” and at least scholarship in this area.

    Thanks for great informative blog.

  3. Michael says:

    Lets put it another way – Is having a city planned around cars good for social interaction. Does it make people more self-centred? Does it encourage people to move further away from activity centres? Does it take up a lot of space and divide areas with freeways? Does it make streetscapes more pleasant to be in? The car is a great form of personal freedom, but what evidence is there that it improves social interaction?
    Yes, public transport was more friendly back in the day. Stations were also staffed.

    • Alan Davies says:

      As long as the accessibility is the same it shouldn’t matter if it’s low density-car (Silicon Valley) or high density-transit (Manhattan).

      But I note that even in Manhattan, the highly sociable characters of Sex in the City and Seinfeld seem to travel by taxi rather than the subway!

      P.S. Great question for a future post though.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Guys, please! Andrew is just fine. But as best I know, I lost the prof title when I left ANU.

    My focus on commuting is strongly influenced by Robert Putnam’s discussion of the topic in “Bowling Alone”. He talks there about the fact that commuting leads us to view other people less well – the niggling annoyances of people who cut in front of you, fail to wave to acknowledge a courtesy, block the intersection. I think that stuff is less prevalent on public transport.

    But certainly an interesting discussion, and I’d love to have more solid evidence on this point, rather than just be spruiking theory.

  5. lock says:

    Just to throw in my own experience…

    I once commuted from Mill Park to Fishermens bend by car twice daily, the 30km drive would take no less than 1hr each way. I honestly found the trip home ‘soul crushing’, my wife quickly learnt to leave me alone for at least an hour upon arrival as I would be in ‘one of those moods’. Often I found myself working back late for no reason other than to avoid peak hour.

    I’ve since switched to cycle commuting (4 years now) and the difference in my mental state is still quite pronounced. I find I frequently engage in conversations with random strangers on my trips to/from work and are much more likely to stop off for social occasions on the way home. Same applies for when I take the ‘soft’ option and catch a tram into the city.

    I too would be interested in seeing some actual evidence. Is it the mode of transport or the amount of time consumed by commuting that is responsible for the erosion of social capital? Surely a little of both, but what proportion?

    • Alan Davies says:

      Cycling is easily my preferred way of commuting, BUT, I found that it made me much crankier than when I was driving because of those idiot drivers who I felt put my life in actual danger (i.e. not a mere annoyance, but what I felt was real danger).

  6. Chris says:

    Lock beat me to it. I ditched driving over 5 years ago for commutes. I will never put myself in a situation where I’m forced to drive to work. I have similar experiences as Lock with cycling, although I have a reasonable safe commute away from car traffic.

    I agree with you Alan, riding with traffic can make you cranky. This raises another issue that I’ve become increasingly interested in. In the UK 20 mph traffic zones have already been introduced.

    This would seem the only sane solution for all regarding cycling.
    In regard to driver crankyness; 30 kph in built up areas, especially during peak hour, might help to reduce driver stress. Since there would be no more temptation to speed up to 60 kph every time there is 50 meters of clear space in front of you, only to have to slam on the breaks again. The constant stop start of car commute was the number one annoyance for me.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I’m a longstanding advocate of 30kph limits. We should start with the CBD, inner city and strip shopping centres.

      Most importantly though, I’d like to see a supplementary law that requires motorists to drive at the appropriate speed for the conditions e.g. the 40kph limit at my daughter’s primary school when kids are arriving and leaving is not appropriate – should be more like 20kph.

      All sorts of admin issues I know….but we have to get away from the idea that driving at the maximum permitted speed is always OK.

  7. sani says:

    MRT AND CC enhance Social Capital

    All this while I am thinking why can’t the MRT man and the Community Centre provide /create some social link for community live around the vicinities . I found there is a co relationship and link to construct a share interest and bridge the community . They can meet almost every day at the same station ,on the way, by the way to have “conversation on Line” . Especially those need to travel from one end to another end (ie. from Woodland to City Hall). I believe you have seemed couple from day one holding hands on their way ,develop their interest on “line’ and end up marriage right. This is the potential area we can further explore the Community Link…
    on this note , it doesn’t erode Social capital instead it enhance and glue the Social sectors… Australia and Singapore can move and think on this track to increase the social capital.

  8. sani says:

    My five constructs can commute/erode social capital for the next five years – Sani

    I see bigger landscape , these “five” could be our challenge for Social engineer ……

    We can do little to change a demographic trend or a widespread shift in consumer consciousness. But we can react to these social constructs, even better anticipate them to our own advantage. We, usually did more on Schedule push and not much on innovative pull , most of the time we adopted Management “by inform” and not “inspire” when we need change .

    To foresee what is coming our way and plan ahead to see what social constructs make innovative change to increase our social capital, just like Starbucks,CEO, Howard Schultz, will change its Logo at its coming 40th anniversary . These are my Five constructs of change will restructure the social economy for the foreseeable future.

    The income gap: . In between the top 20% and the bottom 20%, the sandwich class is a vital player . This created a wave of new middle-class consumers but also drive profound innovations in product design, market infrastructure, and value chains. They could be our multiplier in develop our social capital. How can we drive their need to enhance our social credit ?

    The IT driver : With Web2.0 , the social medial is created a massive order in the social construct , it form a strong means for us to drive(or to die) the social order. With everything is connected ,it opens up radically new possibilities and new playing field for Social sectors
    A McKinsey survey shows significant increases in the percentage of organisations using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and social networks. Among respondents at these organasations, a large majority continue to report that they are receiving measurable business benefits, including more effective marketing and faster access to knowledge.
    The current youth population aged 12 to 35 is 1.3 million which is IT smart, To quote “A new generation of Singaporeans has grown up without memories of the poverty, uncertainty and strife of our early years. Their starting point in life is today’s high water mark, not yesterday’s low tide….” . More can be done to reach out to these youths for whom the Internet is an integral and inseparable part of their world and daily activity.

    As you can see that the most dramatic innovations in the Western world and how that accelerate social economic. It creates a new economic value which may not be measure by accounting cost. With IT and “Clouds” advancing technologies, their swift adoption is upending traditional social models.

    The aging trap : With aging population, we need to address this trend as not enough work forces is available. To quote “ if you take the US in the 1970s, some 80 percent of our growth came from adding labor, 20 percent from productivity. As we look forward to the next decade, we need to get 70 percent from productivity, 30 percent from labor(McKinsey & Company ,”Why trends matter” 2010)” . Productivity is at stake so do the social infrastructure need to cater for this group is equally vita .By 2030, one in five residents in Singapore will be aged 65 and above The growing ever more severity connected, goods, information, and people are creating an interlinked network that spans , social, and economies groups in ways that permit large-scale interactions at any moment. This expanding grid is constructing a new social model and accelerating the pace of initiatives for new social innovation.

    The immerging new cultural: A collision is shaping up among the our existing Singapore cultural and foreign new cultural as inflow of foreign immigrants is likely to continue although at different speed /stage . As new entry still need time to sink into our society while different expectation is unavoidable , changing social attitudes toward environment. We will see an increased focus on resource to iron out these different emergence, the new order , and regulatory to drive these initiatives if need be. Integration and Naturalisation Champions (INCs) role need to enhance and connectivity with other Social organisations .To improve and recognise bridging diverse communities to one Singapore .

    The welfare philosophy:. With GDP pointed north and will continue to do so , We need not practice welfarelism to provide the social safety net as is often contradictory demands of driving economic growth , How will our society/ entities govern in an increasingly expectation without deficit the social capitol ? socialism

    We need businesses Community to recognize that governments bear the burden of legitimate challenges—and work in partnership , with CSR programme in place to increase the Social capital.
    We need exploratory the new definition,. Precisely how these forces will unfold—and, as important, how they interact—it is not work in progress but work in tune /conduit ,it need innovative , with broader survey data building these five constructs into their social DNA, it give us confidence that these construes should be framing every strategic conversations about how best to chart its end course.

    These constructs driving the emergence are too powerful to be denied and that running a current programme is exponentially more complex than the past one, of any size. We must pay attention to more stakeholders, more regulations, and more risks—and watch to see what our customers are tweeting about them. That complexity is greater, but so, we believe, is the opportunity.


  9. […] in Australia is about). In his new book on social capital, Disconnected (which I’ve discussed before), he points out that there is a negative correlation between trust and ethnic diversity: Residents […]

  10. RED says:

    Refer also to “Better Together” [] for research about the effect of commuting on social capital. Their contention is that all forms of commuting affect social capital, mostly because it affects people’s willingness to participate in civic activities. Effectively they claim that time spent commuting is time taken away from social interaction.
    Also, “Traffic” by Tom Vanderbilt has interesting discussions on the effects of commuting on trust, particularly on how stupid road laws affect overall trust in the State.
    This is a big issue for Melbourne – if increased commuting times really do affect social capital, doesn’t that have implications for how we shape our city? Wouldn’t it mean that one of our over-riding goals in planning should be to reduce commuting times?

  11. […] time to devote to community activities or less need to ‘go out’. For example, I’ve pointed out before that car commuting isn’t an issue – the average car commute in Melbourne is 30 minutes and half […]

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