How much time do Melburnians spend commuting?

Average one-way commute distances and times, Melbourne (data from BITRE, 2011)

On average, workers who live in the outer suburbs commute 2.5 times further to get to work one-way than their counterparts who live in the inner city. That’s in terms of distance – probably no surprises there. However what’s not always appreciated is the extra time they spend commuting isn’t that much more – only 19% more than inner city commuters.

Since fewer than 10% of Melbourne’s workers live in the inner city (approx 5 km radius around the Melbourne Town Hall), what’s more pertinent is the average commute times of the more than 90% who live in the middle and outer suburbs. Their commutes don’t vary much – the average middle ring worker commutes for 36 minutes, the average outer suburban worker for 38 minutes. That’s just 5% more.

There’s not even a lot of variability within the suburbs either. Outer-West commuters average 42 minutes – the longest of any sub region – while the shortest commutes are enjoyed by workers resident in the Middle-North and Middle-East sub regions, who average 36 minutes. Only six minutes less.

This data is taken from Research Report 125 recently released by the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics (BITRE) – see exhibit. BITRE largely relied on data from the Vic Department of Transport’s VISTA survey. See also my earlier post on changes in commuting distances over 2001-06 (unfortunately BITRE doesn’t analyse the trend in commuting time).

The spatial regularity in the time workers devote to commuting is consistent with the idea that, on average, travellers budget a relatively fixed amount of time for travel (see here for more on travel budgets). Workers living in the inner city spend almost as much time travelling shorter distances than suburban workers because the former travel at considerably slower speeds, reflecting high levels of traffic congestion in the inner city, higher use of public transport and more walking and cycling.

At the metropolitan level, 40% of workers spend less than 30 minutes getting to work one-way and 61% less than 40 minutes. However there’s a tail of long distance commuters – 17% spend more than an hour commuting one-way. I don’t have data on this 17%, but since the average commute by public transport in Melbourne takes almost twice as long as the average car commute, I suspect many of them are train travellers (I hope to get some data on this).

The numbers in the exhibit are the result of a long-standing trend – improvements in transport infrastructure lead to higher speeds, giving residents the opportunity to increase the distance between work and home but still get there in much the same travelling time. Residents may either move house or move job, or both. This happens with both private and public transport improvements.

So the ‘headline’ implication is that, in general, improvements to infrastructure will very probably result in people travelling further to work. Where that is primarily by car it’s likely, given the technology of the existing vehicle fleet, to lead to higher resource use, more traffic congestion and make greater demands on the environment. There might be exceptions, but in general that’s what we should expect, especially given that all modes are under-priced. It’s worth noting that jobs also move outwards.

The exhibit suggests a number of other interesting implications, but for now I’ll only look at one. The inner city has a staggering riches of jobs – it has 28% of metropolitan jobs and just 8% of metropolitan population. The ratio of jobs to resident workers is 3.02. Yet inner city residents still average 7.5 km one-way travelling to work and spend 32 minutes on average doing it.

That trip distance is a lot shorter than elsewhere but given the enormous ratio of jobs to residents enjoyed by the inner city, it’s not that much shorter. The ratio of jobs to residents doesn’t exceed 1.0 in any other sub-region – the highest is the Middle-East sub region, which has a self-sufficiency ratio of 0.85 and an average commute length of 12.6 km.

Simply putting people and jobs in close proximity – say aiming for an employment to workforce ratio of 1:1 – will very probably shorten commuting distances. However it doesn’t look like it will reduce them dramatically and it certainly doesn’t look like it will make much of a dent in the time spent commuting.

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10 Comments on “How much time do Melburnians spend commuting?”

  1. Karl Sass says:

    Fantastic article Alan.
    I was hoping you would do an article along these lines, as I believe the hysteria around living on the ‘fringe’ is exaggerated.
    Distance to the city is overrated as the most important aspect of quality of life.
    In terms of quality-of-life for the residents, commuting should be measured as a time, not distance.
    I feel two things need to occur as Melbourne grows outwards;
    *the level of self reliance needs to increase (with distance from the city) and
    *transport to the city needs to be a higher speed service.
    I recall an article regarding Melton where you stated that residents need to ‘cross the green wedge to get to the main land (of Melbourne)’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for higher speed vline trains to operate. Melton and Patterson Lakes are about the same distance from the city, but it takes about 21 minutes longer to get from PL to the city (electric service). Even with the recent electrification project to Sunbury, travel times for residents have actually increased.
    The government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to increase travel times!
    I think electric services should be reserved for suburbs within approximately 30km of the city.
    With the article above in mind, developments such as Toolern don’t seem as bad as some may have originally (even though it’s in the outer suburbs). We need a complete rethink of how we approach planning for outward growth.

    • Karl Sass says:

      *last minute brain wave* It’d also be interesting to see the commute distance/commute time as a ratio.

    • Marcus W says:

      The reason for the extension of electric trains to Sunbury is to increase the overall capacity of the route. The current V/Line trains only carry a small load of seated passengers, while a suburban train can carry over a thousand people when crush loaded.

      Electric vs. diesel traction has nothing to do with the travel time difference: cities such as Sydney run interurban trains that are electric, serving long distance commuter from the likes of the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and the Illawarra.

      Melbourne has a hard cutoff between the frequent and uncomfortable electric trains operated by Metro, and the more luxurious but irregular diesel trains operated by V/Line, with the type of service on the outer fringe being dependent on history, instead of deliberate planning actions.

  2. LMcC says:

    Shortly after we came to Melbourne in 1985, I went to a meeting in the CBD. When asked how long it had taken to get there, I asnwered “Twenty minutes” (having just timed it), and not knowing then that /everyone/ lived twenty minutes from the centre of the city! LMcC

  3. Oz says:

    Excellent article…an analysis of comparative travel time budget for household units would assist to improve utilization of the existing transport network to meet the travel support needed for activity such as education, retailing, recreation, professional and medical services. If society is to be less reliant on cars then trip mode substitution should be focused on the total time needs of a household.

  4. A good analysis Alan, a point I believe is missed too frequently when discussing infrastructure improvements.

    So the ‘headline’ implication is that, in general, improvements to infrastructure will very probably result in people travelling further to work. Where that is primarily by car it’s likely, given the technology of the existing vehicle fleet, to lead to higher resource use, more traffic congestion and make greater demands on the environment. There might be exceptions, but in general that’s what we should expect, especially given that all modes are under-priced.

    This point I believe is especially important, and I only see two ways around it. Firstly, stop building for more cars, in fact do the opposite, but importantly make living without cars much easier by making other transport options more accessible and serviceable. Secondly, the car fleet may start becoming more fuel efficient by itself, but if it does its a new trend. ABS data shows that the average fuel efficiency of the car fleet is the same today as it was in 1963. Unfortunately for every Prius on the road, there seems to also be a fuel guzzling 4WD (that will likely never leave paved roads!). If true fuel efficiency gains are going to be made, there needs to be some strong legislation introduced to limit the number of inefficient vehicles.

  5. Simon says:

    “So the ‘headline’ implication is that, in general, improvements to infrastructure will very probably result in people travelling further to work.”

    Do you think’s true when the infrastructure improvement takes the form of increasing road capacity by re-allocating road space from cars to bikes? I’d think it would be the opposite, or perhaps have no effect on travel distances.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Reallocating road space from cars to bicycles should reduce speeds for cars and hence lead over time to commute distances declining on average AOTBE (although I expect it would be a slower transition going ‘backwards’ compared to going ‘forwards’). Also, IIRC bike commute lengths are shorter on average than is the case for cars, so this would also tend to reduce overall average commute distances (again, AOTBE).

  6. krammer56 says:

    “It’s worth noting that jobs also move outwards.” While this is true of some jobs, I suggest it is patently not true for others – and this is part of the problem with jobs policy (or lack of it) in Victoria.
    Roughly 30-40% of jobs are “local” and will move with the people – shops, schools, home businesses, plumbers, etc.
    Then there are the slabs of land-hungry jobs that value road transport – big box retailing, logistics, etc. They will move outwards – partly due to some customers moving out and partly due to lower land prices and good road accessibility (witness the impacts of the Western Ring Road).
    Then there are the higher order tertiary jobs – those that supposedly benefit from agglomeration. These have clearly been moving in the opposite direction – towards inner Melbourne, and especially the CBD.
    Melbourne was traditionally a fairly “egalitarian” city with fairly close mixes of residential types and employment location. However, it has increasingly become less so with larger differentials in housing prices between innwer and outer Melbourne and the shift of “blue collar” jobs towards the edges and knowledge ecnonomy jobs into the centre.
    It would be nice to envisage (or even support!) a future where jobs, especiallty the knowledge ecnonmy jobs, are less tied to location. This would not only reduce commute times (and the justification for yet more transport investment), but also support continuation of the past experieice of diverse communities across Melbourne.

  7. Reblogged this on equityjusticeaccess and commented:
    i am a happy inner city commuter indeed. I spend far less money, a little less time and expend heaps more energy cycling… saves on pilates class fees anyway


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