What Makes A City Bad For Commuting?

What Makes A City Bad For Commuting?

A global survey by IBM suggests that Mexico City offers the worst commuting experience in the world. But just what factors contribute to making getting to and from work so unimpressive?

IBM’s “Commuter Pain” survey of 8,042 commuters in six countries didn’t include any Australian locations in its list, so we can’t draw any conclusions about whether it sucks more to drive in Sydney than it does in Singapore. (Big Blue chose “the most economically important cities” — ouch!)

But one surprising finding was that improving roads doesn’t, in itself, make a big difference to the commuting experience. More specifically, while many respondents said traffic had improved in their cities, their perceived levels of stress from that traffic had actually increased as well. Or as the announcement release put it: “while the commute has become a lot more bearable over the past year, drivers’ complaints are going through the roof”.

Maybe that just means we’re a bunch of whining ninnies. But the elements which it used to rank those cities are worth considering when you’re assessing your own daily commute. The index considers two material factors — the time spent to get to work and the time stuck in traffic — and whether the respondent agreed with eight propositions: that petrol is too expensive, that traffic has become worse, that traffic inconsistency is a problem, that driving is inherently stressful, that driving makes you angry, that traffic makes your job harder, that traffic sucks so much you’ve stopped driving, and that traffic problems stop you making particular trips. You may not be able to do much about the material issues, but assuming the experience is going to suck in advance clearly isn’t going to help.

We already know that the average Australian drives an awful lot, and that suggesting using public transport more generally produces three broad responses: “public transport is so bad I can’t use it”, “there’s no public transport in regional areas” or “it’s impossible not to have a car if you have children”. The last one is a pretty weak argument given the length of time humanity thrived without cars; in a commuting context, the regional argument can be counterbalanced by the fact that there’s not much of a rush hour in most smaller towns anyway.

I certainly wouldn’t argue against the fact that public transport could be improved in frequency and reliability in most Australian cities. But with that said, I don’t see too many of us happily agreeing to fund it through taxes. But if we don’t want to do that, maybe complaining about our commute is a tad disingenuous. At the very least, maybe we should think about some of those parameters and work out if we can improve our own experience and attitude. Thoughts?

IBM Global Commuter Pain Survey [via The 9 Billion]

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman freely admits to timing his journeys to and from work to avoid massive crowds on the train. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • I would prefer public transport over driving for commuting to work every time. I find driving in traffic incredibly stressful. Sitting on a train or standing on a tram I can zone out or read a book.

    There are times when transport is late, or crowded or whatever but I still find it a much less stressful experience than driving.

    • I would agree, but only when public transport can provide a time competitive alternative to private transport.

      When I lived in south west Sydney, commuting to Olympic Park/Homebush, I could generally make the drive from door to door in about an hour, in average traffic conditions (down to 35 minutes where the roads were quiet around Christmas)

      In comparisson, driving to the train station, hopping on a train, catching an suburban interchange, then walking to remainder of the way to the office would take about 1 hour 45 minutes.

      Admittedly, commuting on the train did allow me to browse the net wirelessly, and find other ways of amusing myself – but given the choice, I’d take the 90 extra minutes a day with my family any day thanks.

  • Where possible, vary your working hours. It can make a big difference to your quality of life, and reduce the stress of commuting.

    For example, I work 7:30-3:30 M-F, which means I miss rush hour pretty much entirely. Granted, I’m in Perth so it’s not a fair metric, but a simple variation in hours makes the morning / afternoon commute much easier to bear.

    • +1 and for those like Michael all I can say is the risk is one you can manage. I have ridden everywhere for over 10 years (I don’t own a car) and all I can say is my worst experience on a bike in that time was better than any time I have spent in a car.

  • .. The kids thing would be a weak argument, if we lived in villages and our kids could walk to school and their social activities, or if we were comfortable raising our children to be excluded from many, many social and educational activities attended by their peers.

    While I understand that cavemen got on fine without cars, and the Amish still take their kids to school on horses – if you actually want to give your kids a normative experience in a western first world country – you need to drive them places. You might get away with taxis if you can afford it, or car services if you qualify for disability support, or if you have remarkable circumstances – but the vast majority of Australians? It’s just not practical.

    As someone without kids, who lives, shops and works in a pretty small area – it annoys me that I have to have a car. But car share services in Brisbane just won’t do the job, car rental and taxi’s are still more expensive than owning a car and from time to time – I do need to go somewhere or bring something home that isn’t practical on public transport.

    • I caught public transport everywhere from 10 years old onwards.

      Kids can be raised to navigate buses and trains and walk places from a very early age – It’s how I got to school, dancing after school, and then home. Sure, it means that the parent has to take a day to show their child what to do, but the independence and organisational skills PT as a kid had taught me was invaluable.

      • Sorry Lauren but having seen the behaviour of many people on public transport I’m not letting my kids onto PT by themselves until they are around 15 by which time I hope to have instilled some basic human values of decency, manners and ethics.

      • Like Lauren, I was raised to use public transport (and to walk). We had a family car and I won’t deny it was probably essential when I began pursuing some of my extracurricular activities at a high level during high school, but my parents often chose not to drive places but to use buses and trains, e.g. if we went to an evening event in the city.

        As it turns out I have never owned a car and I’ve been able to function perfectly well in two Australian cities as well as a major US city (not New York, which is a special case). All it means is that I make strategic lifestyle choices based on the fact that I don’t drive and ultimately I benefit from these. So I choose to rent where public transport is good, supermarkets are within 15 minutes walking distance and where travel to work and entertainments will be acceptable. I’m saving by not owning a car, and so I don’t begrudge spending on the occasional taxi trip or delivery service.

        I’d agree with others in saying that arranging to work staggered hours is a very smart move if your employer can accommodate this. Travelling any distance on a crowded train is no fun at all. The exact same trip when you have a seat and even a bit of space can be perfectly pleasant.

        • I used PT for all my high schooling (12-17). Although we saw some antisocial behaviour, it was never threatening. And where else is a student at a private school going to get the opportunity to talk to drug addicts and see how the other half lives?

  • A lot of it has to do with the issues about where people live and where they work. For some there’s not much of a choice thanks to decreasing affordability while for others they actively choose to live further away from where they work and they really shouldn’t be complaining about their commutes. If time with their families was so important to them, they’d sacrifice a bit and live closer to work.

    I think the most frustrating thing is inflexibility in the transport systems. Whether it’s due to poor quality roads, inflexibilities of companies with regards to work hours, opening times, etc. or just the fact that one car accident can cause hours upon hours of delays. Everything else you can pretty much get used to but it’s these seemingly random events that just really throw a spanner in the works.

    • To be fair, it is hard for a lot of people to afford a home (buy OR rent) close to work. You can always find another job… but that might mean a big paycut, and moving further again… it’s a Catch 22.

  • I am waiting for seek.com.au and the other job sites to mash-up jobs with Google maps.

    Maybe someone already is, but in terms of cutting your commute, finding an equivalent job closer to home seems wise.

    Me – I ride my push bike to the city; takes same or less than PT or driving in. Granted, I live near a bike path in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Going home is as quick as PT; driving would be quicker but that’s because at 6.30pm – 7pm when I leave most people have gone home.

  • Having lived in London for 10 years, I find it incredible that it is rated as a pleasant commute. They obviously didn’t interview the 3 million people who use the Tube every day in rush hour. Or snow. Or hot weather. Or when leaves are on the track.

  • Strange report. Having lived in both Moscow and Chicago I found Moscow’s public transport nearly perfect and Chicago – pretty much non-existent beyond city centre (oops, I should have said “downtown”, not city).

  • The thing that really surprused me was when CityRail was handing out surveys in the morning peak about 2 months ago.

    Out of my whole packed carriage, 5 people (including myself) chose to participate in the survey and provide feedback to staff. Considering the amount of complaints I see in the MX “Vent” section about poor quality public transit, I was shocked that so few wished to participate in an officially documented survey that might actually do some good!

  • I’m from latin america and spent 4 months in brisbane a couple of years ago… you guys really don’t know how good you have it. I’m amazed there is so much bad mouthing of the public transportation, it was heaven for me.

  • I live in a suburb on a main train line, with a large station (Hornsby). It’s where the Northern and North Shore lines meet, and it has express trains (coming from Gosford) to the city.
    For my partner to get from our place to her work at Parramatta she can:
    1) Drive 45-55 minutes in heavy, stressful traffic to her office
    2) Walk to Hornsby station. Get a train from Hornsby to Epping. Change Trains. Get a train from Epping to West Ryde. Walk from Ryde station to a bus stop on the “traffic sewer” that is Victoria Rd. Huddle on the side of the road in the fumes and deafening traffic noise for a bus. Get on a bus (and stand up in stop-start jolting traffic) for 30 minutes as the bus judders its way through heavy traffic.. Total travel time: 1hr 40min
    Guess which one she chooses? (Total distance: 15km).

  • Sydney’s roads are like most third world countries with Parramatta road’s cracks and bumps feeling like we just came out of a war.

    To top it, our train system in Sydney, CityFail, is an utter disaster with poor line networks an aged train fleet and clearly incompetent management. A Big Shame.

    How about fixing trains and public transport before worrying about carbon taxes as giving people a viable alternative does wonders….

  • I do a fair bit of driving, cycling and public transport to get to work and various client sites, in the 30-60 minute range. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

    PT is definitely the least stressful, but also the most disempowering – you’re completely at the mercy of the system. Early meeting? Plan to get there early. In theory you have lots of time to read, but with lots of connections it doesn’t really work out. And although it seems like you should be able to work on a laptop, the ergonomics aren’t great.

    Cycling is more fun, but requires much more organisation (towels, locks, lights, planning ahead…) and increases my appetite to the point where it gets expensive. You need to be very alert, and a momentary lapse of concentration could be disastrous. Still, if you have any desire for fitness, it’s an incredibly efficient way to get exercise – your commute might be 20 minutes longer but gain you 45 minutes of exercise. (Compare that to spending 30 minutes driving round trip to the gym, so you spend 90 minutes to get only 60 minutes of exercise).

    Driving is the best as long as I’m not going into the city (Melbourne) during peak (which seems to last much longer than it should, well past 9:30). Then it quickly plummets to most miserable experience.

  • Considering that it takes, from what I know, the average Sydney commuter 45 minutes (rough ballpark figure) to get to work and this is a complete and utter shock to every Chinese national I have spoken makes me wonder about the analytics of this survey.

    It takes me 1hr 15mins, each way.. this is a mortifying amount of time to the average Beijinger, Shanghainese or every other Chinese city I have been in over the last few years. They just can’t fathom it.. it’s beyond words. When the trains are late by 1 minute.. yes.. 1 whole minute.. Beijingers start texting about it like it is the end of the world.

    So my take on this survey is that if the average Beijinger is spending more than 20 to 30mins getting to work due to traffic or public transport, then they will definitely “feel” they are getting the worst experience in the world.

    It’s all so relative and subjective isn’t it?

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!