The mega-commute is driving us into an early grave The mega-commute is driving us into an early grave. Charis Chang. 19 November 2014

Is it time we let go of suburban life?

Mega-commutes that eat up our time and patience, they could also be driving us into an early grave. So is it a sad fact of life that they’re here to stay?

In Melbourne, if you drive a car it is possible to travel 10 times further than someone taking the train or tram would travel in the same amount of time. At night, the difference becomes even bigger, when road congestion eases and public transport becomes less frequent.

In the lead up to the Victorian state election, Melburnians are being promised shorter commutes as part of the East West Link project spruiked by the Napthine Government. The cross-city road connection with twin 4.4km tunnels running from the Eastern Freeway to City Link, could save motorists up to 30 minutes.

The Napthine Government has also promised 170 new trains, including 24 VLocity railcars for the V/Line network, as part of its $3.9 billion transport pledge.

Daniel Andrews has promised Labor will rip up the East West Link contracts as part of a focus on public transport, which would run 24/7 in Melbourne on weekends. Labor has also vowed to put $300 million into the Melbourne Metro rail tunnel.

The road and rail frustrations that Melburnians and commuters who live in regional Victoria face, are replicated across Australia.


In Sydney, the daily commute is also a problem for people like Claire Struthers. On a good day Claire leaves home at 6.20am and gets to work at 8.30am but on a bad day the commute once extended to five hours because of a broken down freight train.

An editor, Ms Struthers lives in Tumbi Umbi on the NSW Central Coast and travels to Wynyard in the Sydney CBD for work. Her journey takes a minimum of four hours a day and involves her driving to a train station, a journey of 20-40 minutes, and then sitting on a train for more than an hour. It doesn’t leave her much time to spend with her 15-year-old daughter.

“It’s not ideal, if the trains are late or I’m busy at work, I only get to spend an hour with her,” Ms Struthers told

“It’s a 12 hour day for me, which is a big chunk of time.”

MORE: Petrol excise will hit outer suburban commuters

MORE: Families moving to the regions to escape suburbia

While spending four hours a day commuting to work might seem extreme to some, there are many more like Ms Struthers, who spend the equivalent of half their working day sitting in cars, trains and buses on top of sitting in front of a computer for another eight hours.

And it’s not just family life that is impacted by this lengthy journey to work. Medical experts are now lobbying for action as the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and its links to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease become clearer.

Mega-commute: Claire Struthers travels more than four hours a day for work.

A community campaign to tackle the issue was launched in western Sydney on Friday by Professor Michael Peek, director of Sydney University’s Charles Perkins Centre Nepean.

Prof Peek said people in areas like western Sydney bore the brunt of the obesity epidemic, routinely spending “an hour or three” sitting in a car, bus or train.

“If you spend a lot of time in a car for example, that’s less time you’ve got to be active because it’s very sedentary,” Prof Peek told

“There is data that shows the more sedentary you are, the more at risk of developing obesity and obesity-related medical problems.”

The campaign hopes to bring together schools, businesses and local councils to develop strategies for combating obesity, including whether better urban planning could help.

“This is not simply a medical problem that you can give someone a tablet and fix it, it’s very complex and in the end it’s not just the health professionals who will fix it.

“It also includes architects and town planners … to make cities more exercise and lifestyle friendly.”

He said that lifestyle factors should be considered, especially when building major new projects like Badgerys Creek airport.

Unhealthy: Gridlock on the Eastern freeway in Melbourne. Picture: Nicole Garmston

Melbourne architectural experts have also explored the legacy of Australia’s love for car-centric development in a new report, which suggests there is potential to redevelop areas so that work and entertainment is located within 20 minutes of where people live.

Creating 20-minute cities would also provide the opportunity for significant reductions in carbon emissions.

But one of the greatest barriers to achieving this is community resistance to changes to something that many Australians value — suburban life. So is it time for us to swap suburbia for shorter commutes, healthier lifestyles and a better carbon future?


Professor Kim Dovey, one of the authors of the report Intensifying Melbourne: Transit-Oriented Urban Design for Resilient Urban Futures, said building more freeways was not going to solve the gridlock problem.

“You need to provide opportunities for people to go where they need to go, you need to connect workplaces better and get people out of their cars and onto public transport,” Prof Dovey said.

“At the moment we are a car dependent city — if you don’t have a car, you don’t have huge access to amenities you need.”

One of the starkest examples of the legacy of car-centric planning is that of Australia’s biggest shopping centre. The Chadstone Shopping Centre in southeast Melbourne is located within a kilometre of two train stations and several tramlines, but is designed so that is almost impossible to safely walk from any of these stations to the shops.

Shoppers are instead encouraged to hop on a bus from the stations to travel that last kilometre, which is a 25-30 minute walk.

Chadstone Shopping Centre is almost impossible to get to on foot.

The Catch-22 situation that most Australian cities have become caught in, is described in Intensifying Melbourne. It notes that city development was not always geared towards suburbia. Before World War II, urban planning was linked mostly to walking, cycling and public transport. Our car-dependent cities emerged after the war when cars became more popular and we became influenced by modernist planning. It has continued under the pressure of powerful developers who own land on the outskirts of major cities.

“Developers own most of the urban fringe land and comprise a powerful lobby for more low-density suburbs,” the report from Melbourne and Monash University researchers explains. “As new fringe suburbs develop with minimal public transit they stimulate the market for more freeways.

“The freeways in turn consume the vast bulk of transport funding and stimulate demand for more fringe development.”

It is a cycle that is “utterly inconsistent with a low-carbon future” and locks people into long car-centric commutes. The challenge now is to transition to a new model in the face of climate change, increasing oil prices and population growth.


Prof Dovey is an expert in architecture and urban design at the University of Melbourne and said the important thing was to build services closer together, so people could work, shop and access entertainment without depending on cars.

“All Australian cities have conditions similar to Melbourne, they’re all relatively low density with high car dependency,” Prof Dovey said.

It’s one of the reasons that Australia has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world. The emissions are nearly twice the OECD average and more than four times the world average.

Intensifying Melbourne explores the options for how urban design and public transport could be developed, with an eye to making people rethink the idea that high density equals bad outcomes.

It includes a number of design scenarios for key sites in Melbourne including Reservoir, Sunshine, Surrey Hills, Batman, Chadstone, Northland and Lygon St, Brunswick.

Possibilities: Chadstone shopping centre scenario from report Intensifying Melbourne.

“These designs are aimed at stimulating the imagination for what might happen,” Prof Dovey said. “They are not solutions but scenarios that explore sustainable development options within the existing city.”

The report identifies areas that could be redeveloped, as well as ways to improve public transport, which at the moment in Melbourne is constrained by 170 level crossings where trains block the car, bus, tram and pedestrian networks. It demonstrates that building grade separations along significant stretches of rail line could areas up to “intensification”, including the development of residential and commercial buildings.

Possible redevelopment scenario for Lygon St, Brunswick from Intensifying Melbourne report.

Trenched rail option for Sunshine.
Prof Dovey said that while the report focused on Melbourne, every Australian city could benefit from the principles. His colleagues have also identified areas in other states that could benefit from higher density development which is connected to public transport.
In NSW, the introduction of new light rail to the Sydney suburbs of Randwick, Kensington and Kingsford made these areas a good candidate, urban planning lecturer Gethin Davison of the University of NSW said.

A new light rail project in Sydney makes these areas a good candidate for providing extra homes, work and entertainment. Picture supplied by NSW Government.

In Queensland, Associate Professor Kathi Holt-Damant of Queensland University of Technology suggested that Logan, in the state’s south east, was an example of a suburb that could benefit.

“It’s going through serious growth at the moment and would benefit from all the merits of intensification and connected public transportation,” she said.

The potential for development was linked to whether it was possible to integrate the areas into the public transport network and connect it with other centres and sites.

Prof Dovey said Chadstone shopping centre, for example, could be turned into a “real town” with hotels, housing and other uses, instead of just being a mono-functional venue.

Chadstone could be so much more than a shopping centre.

This could be achieved through building a short underground tunnel that would link it to one of Melbourne’s busiest rail lines.

The centre would benefit from an increase in the number of shoppers and this would open up the opportunity to convert the many hectares of car parking — the centre accommodates 9000 car spaces — into new public facilities, open space as well as residential and commercial towers.

The areas around rail stations, tram corridors, university campuses and industrial zones could be opened up to the same opportunities if public transport access could be improved.

For example, university campuses often have substantial areas of carpark that could be redeveloped for residential, shops and commercial functions.


The report notes that there are many engineering and economic challenges to expanding Melbourne’s public transport system.

“While much could be achieved by radically improving bus services, only rail-based transit (trains, and light rail/trams) can achieve the quantum leap in capacity required for the necessary transformation,” the report states.

The challenge was to find new routes for both tram and train lines that could be integrated with new walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods without damaging the enjoyment of current residents.

This would require expensive underground train stations or elevated rail and it was unknown whether the costs of building these could be recovered through land development.

The report also acknowledges there is a lot of community opposition to ambitious redevelopment plans of this scale but notes that the most significant problem was how politicised urban planning had become.

Tired of waiting? Improved rail services are the key to a 20 minute city.

“Breaking this cycle is the biggest challenge of all,” the report states. All major decisions seemed to be geared to “short term political cycles” creating site-by-site planning, ministerial interference and ambiguous planning codes.

“The refusal to fund major public transport infrastructure, despite the clear economic and environmental advantages over other investments, is because it rarely produces political capital in the short term.”

However, it noted that with mounting fuel costs and climate change costs applied to transport, priorities would change.

“Patronage on public transport has already dramatically risen and increased crowding on trains and trams will add to political pressure for investment,” it said.

The question is whether changes will … one on the basis of political priorities or maximising the benefits of intensification.

As for Claire Struthers, the Central Coast mum says she is planning to look for work closer to home and was not tempted to move into the city.

“We have dogs and I prefer to life a bit further out and have a larger place,” she said.

Claire Struthers spends over four hours a day commuting to work.

But while city living was not attractive for her, she said she thought it did make sense for many other people.

“I think high density has its place, in moderation,” she said.

“I’m not much of a fan of units anyway but younger people don’t mind them because they like the shared amenities such as having a gym, tennis court or pool.”

She thinks the key to getting support for high-density development came down to having nice facilities that were user-friendly.

“I think it makes good sense but I don’t think it will happen. The government won’t build it, they are focused on cars.”

Originally published as The mega-commute is killing us

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