Are we set to commute even further?

Change in average journey-to-work travel distance by region (km). Data from BITRE

The Age says jobs in Melbourne are losing pace with sprawl – it cites a new study by BITRE which predicts “an increase in the average commuting distance” by 2026 and a rise in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres.

If a rigorous, hard-nosed body like the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics is saying things are going to get worse in the future, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice, right? It’s true BITRE does say that, but it’s also true the media tends to err toward a sensational rather than a sober interpretation of any given facts. In this instance the story is a bit of a beat-up.

For a start, it’s hardly news that commuting distances could “increase” over a period of 15 years given the spectacular growth in population projected for Melbourne. What matters is the size of any increase – if it’s only a 1% increase over the entire period, that’s an infinitesimal 0.06% p.a. However if it’s (say) 15%, i.e. 1% p.a., that’s worth taking note of. However The Age is silent on this score.

BITRE doesn’t say anything about the size of the predicted increase either. There’s a good reason for that. BITRE’s study isn’t an authoritative prediction of future commute distances as implied by The Age’s story. It doesn’t make forecasts based on the latest data, using innovative modelling techniques and complex algorithms as one might expect. In fact the report isn’t even about the future! – it’s actually about historical population, employment and commuting patterns in Melbourne up to 2006.

The Age relies on what is in effect an ill-advised throwaway line by BITRE. The report states (p 333) that if the Victorian Government’s spatial projections of population and employment through to 2026 are realised, the likely commuting implications include….”an increase in journeys to work involving a road distance of more than 30 kilometres and an increase in the average commuting distance”. There’s no analysis or supporting information behind this assertion, so too much shouldn’t be made of it. The prominence given to it by The Age suggests BITRE should’ve thought a bit harder before including it in a report about the past and the present.

However what BITRE actually has analysed in-depth is the historical change in travel distances – and here the picture is if anything somewhat mixed. The report looks first at what’s happened over 2001-06 (see exhibit). That isn’t necessarily a guide to what will happen in 2026, but it shows how current patterns are trending. The picture it reveals isn’t one of rampant increases in commute distances but rather one of relative stability.

BITRE found the average commute in Melbourne increased from 14.7 to 14.8 km, or by just 100 metres over five years. That’s a 0.7% increase, or a miniscule 0.1% p.a. Surprisingly, the average commute increased proportionally less in the outer suburbs than in the inner city – in fact as the exhibit shows, the average commute shortened in absolute terms in the Outer South, Outer East and the Outer West.

This is the real news! It’s important because commute distances have historically increased significantly, while commute times have remained relatively stable. So reliable evidence that commute distances have stabilised, even for five years, is noteworthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Could we pay travellers not to use over-crowded trains?

The John West technique: maximising carrying capacity on peak hour trains, Japan

If you think crowding of trains in Australia’s capital cities is bad, have a look at this extraordinary video of how they cram passengers onto trains in Japan! John West could learn a thing or two! Peak crowding is uncomfortable for passengers and increases operating costs – more capacity is needed to handle the peak, but much of it is unused in the off-peak period. That extra capacity might take many forms, such as more carriages, more trains, more staff, etc.

There could potentially be big savings if some of this peak demand were shifted to earlier or later periods. This applies to trains, buses and roads and indeed to many activities that experience peaking e.g. cinemas, concerts. Apart from the disincentive of being treated like a sardine, the standard approach is to charge a higher price in peak periods relative to the off-peak. However political constraints mean public transport operators in Australia tend to conceive of differential pricing as an off-peak concession rather than as an active way of managing peak demand.

Here’s another way of approaching this problem. The Economist reports Singapore is planning a pilot scheme offering public transport passengers a greater chance of winning a prize if they choose to go off-peak. All travellers are entered into a pool with a chance to win cash in weekly lotteries, but those who travel off-peak will effectively get three times as many ‘tickets’. The principle is that small rewards will pay for themselves in lower capital and operating costs.

The Economist quotes Stanford University academic, Balaji Prabhakar, who says lotteries rely on the behavioural-economics insight that the average person is risk-seeking when stakes are small:

Offer individuals 20p to leave the house an hour earlier, and most will say no. But a 1-in-50 chance of winning £10 may seem more enticing. The risk-seeking effect is amplified in small networks: regularly hearing about other winners leads individuals to overestimate their own chances of success.

The idea of carrots rather than sticks is not new. For example, long-standing readers might recall this proposal to reward drivers who don’t speed with a cash reward. Fines from speeders are paid into a pot and redistributed randomly as prizes to motorists who are ‘caught’ by speed cameras driving within the designated limit. The Capital Bikeshare scheme in Washington DC offers prizes to riders who travel against the dominant flow, thus reducing the cost of rebalancing the (geographical) distribution of bikes. This study of the effectiveness of a lottery in reducing car travel found it had a positive effect, although it disappeared when the lottery was stopped (note very small sample size). Read the rest of this entry »


Do as many Melburnians cycle to work as Americans?

Cycling's share of commutes: graphic by Kory Northrop, University of Oregon

This remarkable map, via Nancy Folbre, shows cycling has a non-trivial share of commuting in at least ten cities in the automobile-centric USA. In Portland OR, 6% of workers commute by bicycle and in Minneapolis 4%. Cycling’s mode share is 3% in Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle, and 2% in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans and Honolulu.

How does Melbourne compare with US cities? These ten cities are central counties so there’s no point in comparing them with the entire Melbourne metropolitan area (where bicycle’s share of commutes is 1%). In order to arrive at a fair basis for comparison, it’s necessary to look at bicycle’s share of commutes in Melbourne’s inner city and inner suburbs.

So I’ve summed the Statistical Subdivisions of Inner Melbourne, Moreland, Northern Middle Melbourne and Boroondara. They give me a combined area – which I’ll call central Melbourne – of 313 km2 and a total population of 804,112. That’s a little smaller geographically than Portland, which occupies 376 km2, but it’s a much larger population than Portland’s 566,143.

Cycling’s share of commutes in central Melbourne is 2.81%, which seems pretty good compared to most US cities. However given it’s substantially higher population density, it’s surprising that central Melbourne falls well short of Portland, where 5.81% of commutes are by bicycle. Some allowance has to be made for different methodologies – for example, the Portland figures are 2009 and the Melbourne figures are from the 2006 Census – but that’s not enough to explain a gap this size.

My family and I spent a week in Portland in 2009 and I don’t recall any obvious physical differences that favour cycling relative to Melbourne. In fact at first glance Portland doesn’t look especially promising for bicycles. It’s hillier than central Melbourne, it’s colder and it’s lower density. I doubt that Portland is better endowed than central Melbourne with commuter-friendly cycling infrastructure either.

In some ways Portland actually belies its status as the darling of new urbanism. It’s spaghettied with freeways and in many places doesn’t have footpaths. Even with the new light rail system, public transport has a substantially lower share of travel than in Melbourne.

I think a better explanation for cycling’s high commute share is the special demography of Portland. Aaron Renn puts it this way:

People move to New York City to test their mettle in America’s ultimate arena. They move to Silicon Valley to strike it rich in high tech. But they move to Portland for values and lifestyle; for personal more than professional reasons; to consume as much as produce. People move to Portland to move to Portland.

He cites Joel Kotkin, who reckons “Portland is to today’s generation what San Francisco was to mine: a hip, not too expensive place for young slackers to go”. I like the way the comedy TV show Portlandia put it, describing Portland as the place “where young people go to retire”. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is transit’s share low at Latrobe Uni?

Mode shares (%), 2006 Census

Workers who commute to Melbourne University at Parkville are much more inclined to use public transport than their colleagues who work at suburban Monash or Latrobe universities. The chart shows that at the 2006 Census, 41% of Melbourne University workers reported they drove to work compared to 83% at Monash and 84% at Latrobe universities. Many more staff at Melbourne also walked and cycled – 24% compared to 6-7% at the other two institutions.

Melbourne University’s lower car use is explained by a few key factors. The main one is that it is located on the edge of the CBD where car use is limited by high levels of traffic congestion and expensive all-day parking charges. For many staff, driving would take too long, generate too much angst and be too expensive. If the value of driving is marginal, the decision to choose an alternative will be tipped by the high quality of public transport service available to Parkville workers. Although it’s not served directly by rail (none of these universities are), Melbourne University has easy access by multiple tram lines to the CBD and thence to the many radial train and tram lines linking to the larger metropolitan area. For many Melbourne University workers public transport would be a no-brainer.

Melbourne University’s high level of walking can largely be attributed to the relatively high residential densities in the nearby CBD and inner city environs. If transport is expensive in outlays and time, it makes sense for workers to live close to the university. In this case, living close to the university also means living close to the many activities and opportunities offered by the inner city.

The suburban setting of Monash and Latrobe provides a very different environment. Although these universities are not without their challenges, they generally experience less traffic congestion and enjoy cheaper parking than Melbourne University. Low suburban residential densities and large open space and industrial uses mean fewer staff can live within walking distance. The level of public transport service is actually pretty reasonable by prevailing standards (for example, see here) but obviously not as good as Melbourne University, which benefits greatly from its proximity to the CBD. Read the rest of this entry »


Why does Canberra have more social capital?

Newly elected Labor member for the seat of Fraser in the ACT, Andrew Leigh, argues that Canberra has the highest level of social capital of any of Australia’s capital cities.

The former ANU economist contends that social capital – essentially the level of trust and reciprocity within communities – has declined in Australia. He points to declines in active membership of associations, in religious participation, and in membership of political parties and unions.

We even have fewer close friends now than in the 80s – we’ve two fewer friends who could keep a confidence and we’ve lost half a friend who’d help us through a hard time.

Andrew concludes that there are several plausible explanations for this decline, including people working longer hours, the feminisation of the workforce and greater ethnic diversity. In addition, more time spent watching television, using a computer and commuting means less time spent face-to-face with others.

Most of these changes also have benefits, so he cautions against trying to return to the past. We need new and innovative ways to build social capital. He argues that the place to look for how we might increase social capital is Canberra. This is where it gets really interesting. Read the rest of this entry »


Do we spend too much time commuting?

Time spent commuting to work, Melbourne

I’m currently reading a new book by writer and journalist Jenny Sinclair, When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city. This fascinating book sets out to discover what makes Melbourne unique and, according to the cover blurb, ultimately concludes that it’s all in our collective imagination.

I’m only a little way into the book but a comment she makes – just an aside really – caught my attention and sent me scurrying to the spreadsheet. She’s strolling through Victorian era parts of Melbourne when she’s:

reminded that there’s another (Melbourne), in which workers with affordable houses in Sunbury or Hoppers Crossing have no choice but to drive for hours every day to get to their jobs

This passage reminded me of Richard Florida’s recent claim that commutes in the US are so long they’re injurious to health. I made the point in this post that Florida’s methodology is flawed and time spent commuting in the US is actually relatively short.

But what about Melbourne – is Sinclair’s understanding that many Melburnites “drive for hours” to get to work correct? Read the rest of this entry »


Is commuting (very) bad for you?

Let me say from the outset that I’ve long been sceptical about some of the methods used by Richard Florida, celebrated author of The Rise of the Creative Class. And I’m not the only one – this review of his book by Edward Glaeser is written with a velvet glove but packs an iron fist.

So it’s not surprising I’m unimpressed by Commuting is very bad for you, written by Florida for last month’s issue of The Atlantic. He gets it completely wrong and provides a lesson in the dangers of only seeing what you want to see.

Florida seizes on a survey of 173,581 working Americans which he claims shows that those with longer commutes suffer higher levels of back pain, higher cholesterol and higher obesity. It also shows, he says, that commuting takes a toll on emotional health and happiness – those who commute more worry more, experience less enjoyment and feel less well-rested.

Commuting by car is so bad it’s up there with smoking:

“commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. 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”.

The trouble is the data he cites doesn’t support these conclusions. A proper reading of the two tables from his article (I’ve reproduced them above) indicates there’s very little relationship between commute time and health. Read the rest of this entry »