What’s driving longer commutes?

6 October 2023

Written by: Jackson Mansell

Many people are moving to the country to escape the cost of living squeeze, but there's still division over whether it's worth the long commute to work.

Bradley Heffernan-Benfield typically starts his day at 4am. He then begins a near two-hour trek into Melbourne, arriving at his worksite by 6:30am. The maintenance auditor proceeds to work a nine-hour day before enduring an even longer commute home in peak-hour traffic. This sees him arrive at his Numurkah home just before 7pm, completing a 14-hour stint away from home for the day.

The 2017 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey found that Melburnians were spending an average of 65 minutes per day on the road, compared to the national average of 55 minutes in 2002.  For some, it’s due to long commutes between home and work. Dr Sonia Nuttman from the Faculty of Health at Deakin University says that there are risk in commuting for long periods of time.

“The health implications of commuting are significant,” she says.

“Regularly battling peak hour traffic and travelling long distances to work leads to poorer mental health, stress and an increase in road rage incidents.”

For Heffernan-Benfield, the biggest impact so far has been exhaustion. Moving from Brooklyn in Melbourne’s inner west to Numurkah, 35km north of Shepparton in February, the 21-year-old travels an extra four hours per day to and from work. He is exhausted by the time he gets home at night.

“Fatigue kicks in a lot earlier than what it used to,” he tells upstart.

“By the time you get home, you can’t be bothered cooking.”

So why does Heffernan-Benfield put himself through this arduous task each day, when he recently had the luxury of living a short drive home from work?

It was all about a “scenery change”, he says, which has brought him closer to nature.

“Out this way, you get a lot of the waterfalls. Seeing those waterfalls, it’s a sense of calmness. With football and work, just driving past one of them, sitting there for about five to 10 minutes, it gives you peace of mind and makes you more relaxed.”

Heffernan-Benfield’s decision to endure a long and painful commute is a side effect of a growing trend, seeing more people from the city move to the country in hope of a cheaper and quieter lifestyle. Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher tells upstart that people have always been willing to live to live up to an hour’s commute from the city, a concept known as Marchetti’s Constant, which is connected to our understanding of what travel infrastructure will allow.

“The logic behind [the willingness to spend an hour in traffic per day] is that if we massively improve traffic flow within a city by building sexy roads and rails, then more people realise that they can move further out and still stay within that one-hour commuting radius,” he tells upstart.

However, he says that while better infrastructure is enticing people to live regionally, mass migration ends up making that appeal redundant.

“Ultimately, they clog up the roads more and then all of the advances made are nullified.”

Working long hours, followed by the long drive means that it was a little while until Heffernan-Benfield was able to fully take in the beauty of the country.

“It took me ages to adjust to it because when I moved, we were hitting peak with work, so I was continuously working,” he says.

While there has been a trend of people opting for a tree change, others, like Alex Leckey, are going against the tide. The 35-year-old moved from the country town of Traralgon to the inner-west suburb of Seddon, 7km from Melbourne’s CBD. Leckey opted to move to the city after his partner moved back to Melbourne from New Zealand.

Moving to the city can pose problems like adjusting to the cost of city living. For Leckey, another was his work situation. For a period after his move, Leckey still had to spend the working week in Gippsland before basing himself in Melbourne. He would leave Melbourne early Monday morning and drive back late Friday night, a task that took the energy out of him.

“[Travelling] does burn the candle at both ends. I’ve been doing the back and forth for some time and it’s not nice,” he says.

“I’m up at 5am on a Monday and I’m on the road…and then I’ll come back late on a Friday which then sort of burns your life.”

The long weeks mentally affected Leckey. He says that a lack of time prevented him from being as physically active as he was when he was living in Traralgon full-time.

“You’re constantly working while you’re away,” he says.

“I’ve gone from someone who’s done a few triathlons in the last couple of years and playing soccer, to barely going for a run or maybe going to the pool once or twice a week.”

Increased periods of driving can provide a limited opportunity to exercise, which can lead to health issues. Evidence suggests that the longer someone spends driving increases the risk of premature mortality, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, as the regular treks to Gippsland for work began to ease up, Leckey was able to free up more time to engage in physical activity. Leckey has recently joined a local gym and is also playing futsal on a Wednesday night. These activities are helping him carve out a routine similar to what he had in Traralgon.

“I’m settled now, and I’ve been now three or four weeks in Melbourne,” he says.

“The quality of life is a hell of a lot better when you’re not on the road travelling.”

For Heffernan-Benfield, when he finally got used to the change, the new lifestyle his daily commutes afforded him made it worth it.

“I finally sat down and [was] like ‘wow, this is actually much better than what it is in Melbourne’.”

Photo: Melbourne traffic, Victoria, Australia, 8 Feb. 2009 by Phillip Capper available HERE and used under a Creative Commons license. This image has not been modified.