Apr 22, 2012

In Pursuit of a Good Commute

Working in stockbroking for the last 15 years, I have long worked in the CBD.
Living in Suburbia Superbia, this means commuting.

PART ONE: In The Olden Days

In my life BC (before children), I took public transport to work: the tram back when I lived in "Zone 1", and the train once I moved to the 'burbs.  I used to enjoy the train because it was roomier than the tram, air-conditioned, and I could sit and read a book.  (Anyone living in Melbourne will recognize this was some time ago, as the trains during rush hour are no longer roomy, and it's rare to find space to read a book).

When I returned to work after maternity leave, having to drop off and/or pick up the girls from daycare (open between 7am and 6pm), starting work at 8am and finishing at 5pm, the train was no longer an option. I wouldn't have got door to door in time.

And so began my life as one of those horrible, selfish, stupid single-occupier car drivers who congest the freeways, hog our city's resources and increase our carbon footprint.

PART TWO: When I Had A Watertight Excuse

Photo by Nationaal Archief via Flickr CC

Where we live, public transport from our house to the train stations is patchy. There is a bus that goes on the half-hour, between 6am and 6pm. I used this approximately two times, because: (1) I could only do it on a day I wasn't doing drop-off or pick-up; (2) I had to get up at 5:00am, then (3) I had to walk a kilometre to the bus-stop, which meant (4) I had to wear comfortable shoes and walking clothes or carry change of clothes/shoes with me, and despite all that (5) I could never catch the bus home from the station anyway, as the last one left at 6pm, which is later than my train from the city would arrive, so (6) I had to pay $12 for a taxi home from the station, thus wiping out the cost benefit of not driving.

All this is not a complaint you understand - we chose to live in a 3-bedroom house in the 'burbs (the audacity!) rather than squash our family into a flat closer in, or spend half a million on a townhouse in a sustainable urban village on the city fringe. I don't expect the government to underwrite my lifestyle or put on a million more train lines. I don't expect my employer to pay me to work half-days, work from home or set up branches in the eastern suburbs.  I don't expect to find work close to home paying the same money or offering the same career opportunities. I don't expect daycare centres to offer 24 hour service or schools to look after my children until evening.

What I would like, if it were a teensy bit possible, is for media types, urban planners, public commentators, inner-city dwellers and bicycle riders to STOP vilifying me for driving to work!!

PART THREE: Current Day

As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his excellent and compulsively readable book Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), the reasons people commute and their relationship with commuting are complicated.
For example, who can understand this picture?
Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 1971 -
State Library of NSW

But also, consider these points about my own driving habits:

  • At some point during the childcare years, we worked out that I did not have to be solely responsible for drop-off and pick-up, since my husband works closer to home than me, and sometimes starts work later. So he started taking them and picking them up 2 days, and the other 3 he dropped them off and I picked them up. This gave me 2 days where I did not have to drive to work. I did "try" to take the train on those days, but my efforts were sporadic. The main reason was time, or more accurately a bit of time and a lot of convenience. If I drive to the station and take the train, going to work takes an hour and twenty minutes. Coming home takes longer - I would not get home until 7pm. In comparison, driving takes 45 minutes. That's a BIG difference. Because as any working-at-the-office mother knows, the later you get home in the evenings, the more shitful the night goes for you and the kids, with the knock-on effects bleeding into the next day (kids are grumpier, mum is more stressed, dinner is rushed, everyone gets to bed later, prep is curtailed for the next day...).  So even when I "should" have used public transport, I usually drove, despite the cost and sometimes the guilt, because that half-hour difference was worth it.
  • Currently I only work 3 days, and on 2 of those my husband is at home (he works weekends); which means for two of those days he looks after the kids, gets dinner, etc. As I am home more with the kids I don't feel as guilty about making sure I squeeze as much time as possible being by their sides, plus I am no longer exhausted every day. All of this means that the extra half-hour commute using public transport should no longer bother me on those 2 days, and I should easily be able to take the train to work. But.... I don't. I've got used to the comfort and convenience of driving my car.
    Missouri W.P.A. Art Project, 1943
    (Library of Congress) - via Flickr
  • I have a love-hate relationship with my commute. I wish it was shorter. I am not the world's best driver and am aware that the risk of an accident soars on the days I am run-down or just tired. I know all the costs - petrol, tolls, city parking, risk of crashes, extra wear and tear, and the impact of less movement on my fitness. But I love listening to the news and talk shows on the radio, the familiar banter between Red Symons and Jon Faine, AM with Tony Eastley (and the thoroughly excellent PM with Mark Colvin on the way home) and even (when I am running late), guiltily catching the beginning of the Jon Faine show during the time I should be at work. I like doing my make-up sitting in the carpark five minutes before I go up to work. I like being able to cart stuff in and bring stuff home. (Compare coming home on the train with dry-cleaning).  I do miss walking, which I used to do a lot of. When I do take the train and walk the 2 blocks to work, I notice and enjoy interacting with the environment (pavement, air, sights and sounds) the way you don't in a car. On those days I wish I could walk to work, or catch a tram or a train from walking distance to home.  But I think mostly I am like the commuters mentioned in  Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), who name the daily commute as the worst part of their day, but when asked what they would like instead, nominate "a shorter commute", rather than "no commute". 

TRAFFIC: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)

Here are some excepts that stood out for me from this totally fascinating book:

"98% of US commuters favor public transportation for others." - Headline in The Onion

"As [traffic increases], things get worse for everyone, but as there is still a gain for each driver (getting to work, getting home), that exceeds the gain from not driving, and as the loss is shared by all, people keep joining the freeway."

"...once you have shelled out for a car, the comparatively marginal cost of another trip is barely noticeable - in other words there is little incentive not to drive."

"...a half-mile is as long as planners believe the average person is willing to walk."

"The reason we see so many people on the roads, getting in our way, is that so many of them are doing things that used to be done at home. This, too, is a function of affluence, but it's a complicated relationship. Do we drive to a restaurant for take-out food because we can afford it or because we are so busy trying to make money we have little choice?"

"One study that looked at the working poor found that those with a car were able to get around three times more quickly than those without one. Even people who do not own a car are more likely to commute by car than public transport."

"Trying to crack the commuter psyche is rather bewildering work. On the one hand, people seem to hate commuting.... On the other hand,... when people were asked to name an 'ideal' commute time, their mean response was not, as you might expect..., 'no commute', but sixteen minutes."

And finally, just because it's so good, enjoy "Mr Walker and Mr Wheeler" in Disney's Motor Mania (made in 1950, watched and loved by my family in the 70's, and still so relevant!)

How do you get to work? Do you commute? 
Do you hate it or is it not so bad?


  1. Hi Jackie,

    I am ashamed to say that I am (probably) just like Goofy in that fabulous cartoon.

    The sad thing is that I work four miles from home, so theoretically, I could walk - I could certainly cycle - I definitely could catch a bus - but I drive!!!!!

    Great post - and it does make me consider what I ought to do...




    1. Thanks PM! We do get comfy in our habits, don't we...
      Wish I lived 4 miles from home. But that's a little too far to walk, I think. That's 8 k's in my language! Fine for an exercise walk on the weekend - not something many people are going to realistically do back and forth every work day.
      Maybe a bike!

    2. Wish I *WORKED* that should say...

  2. I read this and I feel very thankful that I live where I live and have the lifestyle that I do - and I know I pay through the nose for living where I do, but the time benefits it affords me can't be replaced. Still think that bad city planning has a hell of a lot to answer for.

    1. So true Pand -TIME is worth more than MONEY. Hence why I drive. The thing is, while I would like to work more locally and not have to drive, when I'm doing it, I kinda like it.

  3. This is a very informative post, Jackie. I'll confess to being one of those smug types who saw the gridlock and single occupiers and felt frustrated but you have made me think again about the 'convenience' of being in the inner city with good public transport but at the cost of space and gardens and money .... versus larger house which is better for families, far less reliable public transport, daycare toing and froing.....

    Another way to pile on the guilt for whatever choices we make, I guess. We chose innercity, but then again we only have one child and can put up with a weeny two bedroom cottage. But are we denying her a real 'garden' and suburban lifestyle.....

    I think you're doing the best job you can possibly do and I love reading what you write.

    1. Wow, that's such a lovely comment Kath, and means a lot to me.
      I believe our kids get the varied benefits of how we live and what we make the effort to give them. Sapphire is not missing out on anything with what you and LC provide her.
      I mostly love how and where I live, but I'll admit to being envious of some aspects of inner-city life.
      But however we live, unless things are very bad or hard, it's all good. :-)



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