What will the rise of long-distance commuting do to Australia's cities?

Wynard station, Sydney. Image: Getty.

There is a strong geographic element to the transitions in the Australian economy that our prime minister so frequently refers to. Generally, the old economy, based on manufacturing, mining and agriculture, provided employment and opportunity in regional Australia, whereas the new jobs in knowledge-intensive industries are predominantly created in the centre of our largest cities. The federal government’s recent Smart Cities Plan states:

Australia’s growth as a knowledge-based economy, and the prosperity this offers, goes hand in hand with the growth of our cities and the regions surrounding them.

But how does this growth in city-centric industries translate to regional growth? Commuting may provide the answer.

That people travelling from regional areas to work in cities may distribute both financial and population growth was first proposed by Gunnar Myrdal in 1963. This applies particularly when this commuting is associated with the relocation of households from the cities.

Australia’s latest high-speed rail proposal envisages commuter-driven regional development Image: spamlian/Flickr/creative commons.

More recently, the CLARA proposal bases regional development on high-speed city rail access and attracting commuters to new cities between Sydney and Melbourne.

In Victoria, the flight of city dwellers to picturesque regional cities and towns has received regular media coverage over the past decade. An example is the Northcote North phenomenon: 2006 Census data indicated most of the new residents of Castlemaine had relocated from Melbourne’s inner north.

Rise of the long-distance commuter

Census data also indicate that a significant number of these metropolitan escapees work in Melbourne. In Geelong, 2011 Census data show that more than 11,000 residents of the regional city travelled to work in Melbourne. That was nearly 13 per cent of the city’s resident workforce.

This growth in commuting has occurred across Australia. Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery said it’s no longer a steel city but “a lifestyle city” when proposing that Sydney commuters may help offset continued job losses at the local steel plant. He said more than 20,000 of the city’s residents commute to the New South Wales capital each day.

For cities like Wollongong and Geelong, commuting may provide important economic benefits as their traditional industrial strengths decline and even close.

The increase in regional-urban commuting can be seen as not just the result of the increase in well-paid employment towards the centre of our larger cities. Rising housing costs have also played a part.

In a recent interview, a new resident of Torquay said that, for similar prices, it was a choice between the beachside town and a new housing development on the outskirts of Melbourne. Other reasons for regional relocation include friends and family, rural amenity and work arrangements for other household members, but metropolitan housing costs appear to be a significant factor.

What do regions get out of this?

Regional-urban commuters’ access to well-paid employment is an important factor in spreading economic benefits. For example, about 30 per cent of Geelong residents who earned more than A$2,000 per week in 2011 worked in Melbourne.

It is also important to note that, in 2011, more than 50 per cent of the Victorian regional-urban commuters had changed their place of residence in the preceding five years: people are moving to commute and bringing higher incomes and families with them. There is evidence to suggest that this additional income may lead to higher regional employment in retail and service industries.

However, research indicates that many people do not continue long-distance commuting for more than a few years. This can be attributed to the links between long-distance commuting and poor physical and mental health, family problems and reduced community engagement.

Economists suggest that, when deciding to commute long distances, people are not good at evaluating the non-pecuniary costs of commuting and the higher wages associated with commuting do not fully compensate for these costs. 

When commuters tire of the travel, should they continue to live regionally and seek local work, this may be more significant for regional growth than the impact of the additional income. Some of these people may start new businesses closer to home, or provide a labour pool for other businesses in the area.

A survey is under way asking regional-urban commuters about their work and considerations of change. Preliminary results indicate that the main reason people start regional-urban commuting is that their work is not available where they live. Many would work locally if they could.

The tendency for commuters to find or create local employment as they tire of the time spent in transit is central to understanding how regions can grow through interactions with larger cities.

You can find project updates and the commuter survey here.The Conversation

Todd Denham is a PhD Candidate in RMIT University's School of Global, Urban & Social Studies.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.