reflections on world commuting times

Here's an interesting chart!  It's from a study of commute times in Brazil, but there are enough world cities to make it interesting.



1.  Viva Marchetti's constant!  There are interesting academic debates around the edges, but the persistence of the 30-minute one-way commute, and especially the few cities with averages much less than that, echoes the observation of Marchetti and others that this seems to have been a tolerable daily travel time across both many centuries and many cultures.  Average commute times in cities don't seem to get much below 30 minutes because most people don't seem to value such short commutes.  But in highly dysfunctional cities they can get much longer.

2.   The organic "planning" of many Brazilian cities is producing better outcomes than the alleged orderliness of Chinese planning. 

3.  Despite the common whining about traffic in both places, the California metros are in good shape.  Los Angeles in particular sings the advantages of a decentralized urban structure that gives many people opportunities to live near their jobs, one that can be easily adapted to successful transit-walk-bike mobility.  

4.  Conversely, dominant and fantastically wealthy central cities (London, New York) are bad for commute times  because so few workers can afford to live close to them.

5.   Aestheticist master planning in the car era was really bad for commute times, because it tended to create building-in-park arragements that are just toxic to both transit and pedestrians.  Like many capital cities that were planned to symbolize rather than function, Brasilia excludes too many pieces of a necessary economy, spawning a vast and disorganized fringe where commute times are even longer than in more organically grown Brazilian cities.  

(Don't get me started about Australia's master-planned capital Canberra,where I've done a great deal of work over the years.  While I love Canberra for a lot of reasons, it took a lot of planning effort to get less than 400,000 people spread out over an area that's 37 km (23 miles) long, insuring long commute times for most of the population.)

Oh, and this chart demonstrates one other takeway:  If you write studies or consulting reports for a living, make sure that everything someone needs to know to understand a graphic is in the graphic, not in adjacent text.  As here, graphics quickly throw off the shackles of context to make their own journeys across the web, confusing or enlightening people depending on the wisdom of the designer.



8 Responses to reflections on world commuting times

  1. Rich September 25, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    Speaking of the graphic, it would have been better if the bars began at 0 minutes instead of 10. In this case it wouldn’t have made a huge difference, but I see this done all the time and it misrepresents the differences in travel time. Aesthetically, I really wish they’d right-justified those city labels!

  2. duke the lost engine September 25, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    “long commute times for most of the population” – is that true of Canberra? I thought average one-way commute times here were about 15min (don’t know how that compares with other cities of 400,000). It’s true Canberra is very spread out, but like LA, employment is also fairly spread out.

  3. Shane Valle September 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Interesting, but this gives us the averages, not the distribution. There may be cities in which a high proportion of workers have one-way commutes much less than 30 minutes and a similar proportion have one-way commutes much more than 30 minutes. But the graphic does a good job of teasing out a useful pattern while prompting us to think more deeply about the subject.

  4. Zebee September 27, 2014 at 2:29 pm #

    Living in Sydney for 15 years I haven’t had a commute time under 45 mins. The fastest of my 3 methods to cover 17km in normal commute hours for the current job is 45 mins on a motorcycle with very aggressive lane splitting and a lot of rat running. (A friend who commutes by car to and from the same place can take up to 90 mins at the same time of day)
    About equal is bicycle/train/train at 60-65 min if the trains are on time (if not then missing the train change adds another 15 min) and bicycle all the way at about 70 min, a bit more in summer heat.
    (The bicycle route is 20km, I trade distance for less traffic and a flatter ride. All times are door to door)
    Most people I know who live in the West of Sydney have long commutes, some can take nearly 2 hours to get home.
    I really think average is not much use, it needs at least a distribution.

  5. Michael September 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    This graph does not show living work balances. In fact, what it shows is where residents commute by transit or car.
    Cities where residents commute by car tend to have shorter commute times (LA) despite all the talk about traffic.
    Cities with heavy transit usage (which sadly transit is usually much slower than driving) have longer commute times, such as New York City and Toronto.
    This has nothing to do with people choosing to live close or far from work. It has to do with how they choose to get to work.

  6. Dexter Wong September 29, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    So, Michael, are you saying that transit is superfluous (unnnecessary) to urban life?

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