Is commuting killing us?

Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

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Have trains gotten faster?

Heidelberg to Flinders St train services, weekday 5 AM to 10 AM, 1939 vs 2011 (express services shaded)

Passengers on Melbourne’s beleaguered rail system may suffer overcrowding, unreliable services and even threats to personal security. But at least improvements in technology mean commuter trains are much faster today than they used to be. Aren’t they?

Actually, no. We take technological improvements for granted in almost everything, but the speed of rail in Melbourne seems to be an exception. If my local rail line is representative of the rest of the system, then travel times today aren’t significantly faster than they were three generations ago!

I compared the 1939 train timetable for the trip from Heidelberg Station to Flinders St Station on the Hurstbridge line with today’s timetable. I started with the first train to leave Heidelberg on a weekday morning in both years and finished with the last departure prior to 10 am (see exhibit).

The number of stations is the same (although back then Flinders St was called Princes Bridge) so I was astonished to see the trip is only slightly faster now than it was 72 years ago. The only substantial savings in trip time have been achieved at the cost of by-passing some stations i.e. by increasing the number of express services.

The average duration of the 17 all-stop services offered in 1939 was 25 minutes, just one minute slower than the average for the 12 all-stoppers available today. The slowest trip time in 1939 was 27 minutes and the fastest, which by-passed some stations, was 20 minutes. In 2011, the slowest time is 26 minutes and the fastest – which by-passes more stations than the 1939 expresses – is 19 minutes. So after 72 years of progress, the trip from Heidelberg to Flinders St is one minute faster!

Modern commuters are nevertheless better off than their predecessors in two key ways, both of which are essentially a consequence of suburbanisation. First, whereas in 1939 there were 19 services from Heidelberg to the city up until 10 am, today there are 27. Second, today’s commuters have a greater choice of express services than the mere two that were available to pre-war residents (the shading in the exhibit indicates express services).

And the increased number of expresses doesn’t come at the expense of by-passed stations. For example, Alphington is by-passed by some services, but still gets 23 in-bound services in the morning. Most of the gains from expresses come from by-passing Victoria Park, Collingwood, North Richmond and West Richmond stations – who still do OK because they are also served by the Epping line (not that these stations generate much patronage).

These welcome and important improvements derive from operational decisions rather than from technological improvements. I’m puzzled why, given advances in technology, modern trains on this line aren’t appreciably faster than they were in earlier years. The speed of cars, planes and communications has gone up enormously since 1939 so why haven’t trains, which have the advantage of operating in a dedicated alignment, similarly gotten dramatically quicker?

This got me thinking about whether technological advances have made urban train travel significantly better in any other respects over the period. I’d guess that labour costs are lower today and energy efficiency is higher. There’ve been some design changes like wider doors and more standing room to increase performance. But my real interest is in how technology has changed things for the better from the customer’s perspective. Read the rest of this entry »


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”. Read the rest of this entry »