The Terrible Cost of Commuting

Here's how we Australians are literally wasting our lives in traffic

Our capital cities are becoming ridiculously congested. It’s taking its toll – in both literal and metaphoric terms. 

If you spend one hour commuting – each way – to work and back (and plenty of people do) you’re not driving any more; you’re wasting about 480 hours a year in traffic.

At the end of a year, you will have spent the same amount of time simply commuting to and from work as most people spend awake in one month.

In other words, commuting to and from work is taking many parents out of play as far as their families are concerned for one month every year, in total. An alternative way to process this information is that if you are lucky enough to take four weeks’ annual leave every year – four weeks doing nothing, soaking up rays at the beach, whatever – this is exactly the same period of time that you will spend commuting for the rest of the year.

The number of motor vehicles on Australian roads has increased 11.8 per cent since 2006, according to the Australian Bureau or Statistics (ABS). In the ABS’s most recent Survey of Motor Vehicle Use (for the year to 31 October 2010) the ABS says there are 16 million motor vehicles on Australian roads, driving a total of 227 billion kilometres annually (up eight per cent since 2006).

Passenger vehicles make up 72.1 per cent of total driving, or 164 billion kilometres. (That’s 4.1 million laps of planet earth – cue the Twilight Zone theme music right there.)

In the process, those passenger vehicles consumed 18.4 billion litres of fuel, of which 15.5 billion litres was petrol. (The total fuel consumption of all motor vehicles was about 31 billion litres.) If you were to put 18.4 billion litres in a box, it would be about a football field at the base, and it would stretch 1.8km into the air – basically dwarfing every manmade structure in the process. That’s a lot of fuel just driving around in cars.

At least commuters on public transport get the chance to be productiveBeing stuck in traffic is becoming increasingly common. We have a huge country and most of it is empty, with vast distances separating our capital cities. However, we do most of our driving within those capital cities. Of the total 227 billion kilometres driven by Australians in the recent ABS survey, 124 billion kilometres (more than half) took place in capital cities. Forty-two billion kilometres of additional driving took place in what Ausstats calls “other urban areas”.

About half of the driving done by passenger vehicles is for personal and other use – taking the kids to soccer and collecting the groceries, etc. Twenty-seven per cent of all passenger vehicle driving is done just getting to and from work. And business use accounts for the remaining 23 per cent.

Just over a quarter of all driving in cars took place just getting us to and from work – 44 billion kilometres in total. In the process, we consumed almost five billion litres of fuel. That’s a $7.5 billion spend … and a $2.5 billion taxation windfall for the Federal Government (38 cents fuel excise plus one-eleventh of the total price in GST). For this reason alone it’s obscene that you can’t claim the cost of travel to and from work as a tax deduction.

Addiction to the car is not a particularly space-efficient way to get to workTwo weeks ago I spent 90 minutes – exactly 90 minutes – driving 34 kilometres in Sydney peak-hour traffic, an experience every bit as demanding as it was frustrating. Average speed: 22.7km/h. Yawn. If peak Sydney traffic weren’t Stephen King malevolent, a trip like that should take about 45 minutes. Or less.

This drive test was self-inflicted; something I chose to do – to publicise the absurdity of Sydney’s toll roads on Radio 2UE’s breakfast program, hosted by Jason Morrison. Toll roads, in my view, constitute the modern-day equivalent of highway robbery, and the test proved it.

Two vehicles took part in this test. Me? I drove on free arterial roads, while Paul Murray, (appropriately enough) host of the Drive programme on 2UE from 3pm-6pm weekdays took the more conventional toll-road route. We did live crosses every 15 minutes or so back to Jason Morrison in the 2UE studio – both of us ‘racing’ at snail’s pace in a sea of cars, 4X4s, trucks and cyclists all with one thing in common: we were wasting our lives in traffic.

Commuting by car is far from calming...As I looked around, I saw plenty of people who’d clearly had enough … and they hadn’t even started work yet. One had a broadsheet newspaper open across the steering wheel. I observed two women putting the finishing touches on their hair and makeup. At least one person was eating breakfast, and plenty more were texting, e-mailing and talking with flagrant disobedience.

Here’s the rub: Using the free roads it took just seven minutes longer to get from the outer ‘burbs to the CBD. Seven minutes! But using the toll roads costs $19.68 (return) just for the one day. Annualised, after allowing for public holidays and four weeks’ annual leave a year, the all-up cost for the daily grind of approximately 70km, return, was $4526.40. Outrageous.

This journey took place from Castle Hill, in Sydney’s notoriously under-serviced north-west sector, to the Sydney CBD, a journey thousands of drivers undertake every day. (Like there’s an alternative public transport option.) The cost of the tolls is more for most drivers than the cost of the fuel. 

There’s regular public outcry over the cost of fuel, but less so over the cost of tolls. These tolls effectively more than double the recurring cost of getting to work – for a seven-minute each-way advantage. You’d have to value your own time at (at least) about $80 an hour to consider the time saving worthwhile.

Tell the boss you’ll work 15 minutes more every day for a $5k increase and see what (s)he says…

Congestion and commuting are a disgrace.