The impact of commuting on our health and wellbeing is often underestimated. Commuting times have increased dramatically in Canberra. Cycling and walking are part of active travel and an alternative to passive travel. The lone, sedentary commute in a motor vehicle is still the most common way to get to work for most Canberrans, and typically the longest trips in our daily lives.
The full title is a mouthful: The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17, The University of Melbourne, 2019.
This survey is funded by the Australian Government and the 14th Annual Statistical Report.
“The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey is a household-based panel study that collects valuable information about economic and personal wellbeing, labour market dynamics and family life. It aims to tell the stories of the same group of Australians over the course of their lives.”HILDA Survey, The University of Melbourne
As a health and wellbeing study, HILDA is quite broad. The HILDA Survey does not target transport specifically, unlike the Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019. The HILDA report includes data on commuting as commuting impacts on our health and wellbeing. Canberra.bike is interested in commuting time, length and the cost of congestion, particularly for Canberra.
We are Humans and not Econs
“Humans and not Econs” is a critique of traditional economics and the assumptions made about people in economics. Econs refers to how we are expected to behave according to economic models. However, as Humans, our actual behaviour is not logical but psychological. Both terms, Econs and Humans, are explained in the book Nudge by Thaler.
Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 considers the cost of congestion and presumes quicker is better as “time is money”. If we consider our lives from a health and wellbeing perspective, in a more holistic way, quality of life and commuting length are important, too.
Active travel has positive health and wellbeing benefits in contrast to the negative effects of passive travel (sedentary commute in a car). From a psychological perspective, commuting in traffic and traffic noise are something we never adapt to and remains stressful.
An hour sitting in traffic driving to work is not good for you. In contrast, an hour riding to work (away from traffic noise) has benefits for both our health and wellbeing.
The way we get to work makes a big difference and determines whether we arrive at work in a stressed state, and how healthy and active our lives are.
Evidence from psychology
“Lengthy commutes have repeatedly been shown to be associated with reduced worker wellbeing and negative family outcomes (for example, Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), 2016; Flood and Barbato, 2005; Milner et al., 2017; Roberts et al., 2011; Rüger et al., 2011; Stutzer and Frey, 2008).”The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17, The University of Melbourne, 2019, pages 78-79
When there are changes to our external environment, we are sometimes able to adapt to them. There are, however, external conditions that matter, as there is no adaptation. We will always be stressed to some degree by these external stressors no matter how long we experience them. These are:
- noise (particularly intermittent)
- commuting in traffic
- lack of control
- shame of oneself.
“Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise (such as when a new highway is built) never fully adapt, and even studies that find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment of cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent interferes with concentration and increases stress. It is worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.”The Happiness Hypothesis, page 92
People “do not fully adapt to the longer commute, particularly if it involves driving in heavy traffic. Even after years of commuting, those whose commutes are traffic-filled still arrive at work with higher levels of stress hormones.” (The Happiness Hypothesis, page 92)
Experiences of stress
Some things we find more stressful than others. It may be surprising to find what we find stressful when we measure it. The morning commute is amongst the worst.
“We can measure the proportion of time that people spend in a negative emotional state (U-index) while commuting, working, or interactive interacting with parents, spouses, or children. For 1,000 American women in Midwestern city, the U-index was 29% for the morning commute, 27% for work, 24% for child care, 18% for housework, 12% for socialising, 12% for TV watching, and 5% for sex.”Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, page 394
The HILDA Report
Passive travel harms us and congestion makes it much worse. The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 predicts almost doubling of the cost of the commuting by 2031. The HILDA Survey tells us the commuting times are increasing.
The increase in daily commuting times has been particularly pronounced at the lower end and the median of the distribution…
In all years, the person at the 90th percentile of the commuting time distribution spent two hours per day travelling to and from work.The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17, The University of Melbourne, 2019, pages 80
In Australia, 55% of the working population commutes less than 10 km.
We prefer to work close to where we live, which is no surprise. Particularly with dependent children, it is harder to move. People with no carer’s responsibilities tend to accept longer commuting times.
 Wilkins et. Al., HILDA, Melbourne Institute, 2019, 81.
It shows that close to 28% of workers live and work in the same postcode.The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey: Selected Findings from Waves 1 to 17, The University of Melbourne, 2019, pages 81
Table 4.9: Mean commuting time of employed persons, by distance between home and location of main job, 2017
|Distance (km)||Portion in each commuting distance (%)|
|0 (same postcode)||27.5%|
Commuting times in Canberra
In Canberra, the average time commuting to work has increased from 31.3 minutes in 2002 to 51.5 minutes in 2017, an increase of 64.5% over 15 years.
Looking forward, congestion and travel times are expected to increase further…
The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 expects the cost of road congestion in the ACT and Queanbeyan to increase to approximately $504 million in 2031, up from $289 million in 2016, a 74% increase. (Urban Transport Crowding and Congestion Fact Sheet – ACT and Queanbeyan August 2019, Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019)
Table 4.8: Mean daily commuting times of employed persons in the ACT, 2002 to 2017 (minutes)
Increasing travel times in the ACT
Most people drive to work in the ACT, which is not good for our health. The congestion is increasing, which is poor for our wellbeing. Increases in travel time due to congestion are a bad combination. The 2017 ACT Travel Survey showed that most people work close to where they live. Those living in Belconnen are always likely to look and find work in Civic. The distance between Belconnen and Civic does not change. Families are unlikely to move, especially with two dependent children in school. Longer travel time is the direct result of increasing congestion.
Getting people off the roads creates more space on the roads for those who must drive. We need alternatives to private motor vehicles for commuting. Public transport is one, as buses carrier more people in the same road space, therefore, decreasing congestion. Light rail is better with its dedicated tracks, independent of the roads, and a network that can be optimised to move many people in a fast, cost-effective and efficient way.
The bicycle has great potential (Netherlands) when dedicated infrastructure is provided for it. Separated and protected bike-only paths always bring a return on investment. Most importantly, active travel has many health and wellbeing benefits.
As the travel times increase on the roads it makes cycling a more attractive alternative to driving or taking the bus.
In Australia, 55% commute less than 10 km to work. In Canberra, the average commute to work is less than 10 km and the average time commuting to work has increased from 31.3 minutes in 2002 to 51.5 minutes in 2017, an increase of 64.5% over 15 years. Many could easily ride 10 km in under 50 minutes. Electric bikes would make this distance seem trivial.
 Wilkins et. Al., HILDA, Melbourne Institute, 2019, 81.
 ACT and Queanbeyan-Palerang Household Travel Survey, ACT Government, 2018, <https://www.transport.act.gov.au/about-us/planning-for-the-future/household-travel-survey> [accessed 7 July 2021].
 Wilkins et. Al., HILDA, Melbourne Institute, 2019, 79.