The concept of a Travel Time Budget, also known as Marchetti’s constant, was mentioned in conversation last week, and it got me thinking.
Marchetti posits that although forms of urban planning and transport may change, and although some live in villages and others in cities, people gradually adjust their lives to their conditions (including location of their homes relative to their workplace) such that the average travel time stays approximately constant.Wikipedia
The transport planning perspective on this is that if you upgrade transport infrastructure and services to help people save time, eventually they just end up using more time to travel further.
Not everybody of course, but an average.
This has happened before. The Regional Fast Rail upgrades of the mid-2000s were widely seen as enabling commuting from areas around Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, Seymour and Gippsland into Melbourne. Between 2004 and 2010, V/Line patronage grew by an amazing 88%. (Related: if you run faster trains, more often, people will use them.)
The big question is: how will Marchetti’s constant work following the fallout from COVID-19?
While nobody knows exactly what will happen, it’s widely predicted that many people pre-COVID who had been working five days a week in the office will post-COVID switch permanently to part time in the office, part time at home.
As noted in this article, some people, anticipating commuting to a CBD office less often, are moving further out, in return for more space and cheaper housing. But so far it’s all anecdotal.
After 18 months of working from home and not seeing family in person, the concept crossed my mind. Many of us are in jobs where most of the work can be done remotely from anywhere with a fast reliable network connection. It’s the face-to-face collaboration which is likely to be the most valuable time in the office – but for many people that’s only part of their regular working week.
So in theory at least, you could give up your expensive Melbourne house, move to a country town and buy/rent a still nice (but far cheaper) house with good internet, near a railway station, and pocket the difference.
My usual rail commute is 30 minutes. If you had to go into the office less often, how much further would you be prepared to travel? There’s a limit of course – one day per week in the office probably wouldn’t equate to being willing to travel 2.5 hours each way on a regular basis.
In fact for many towns beyond the V/Line commuter belt services, there’s no train arriving into Southern Cross before 9am, though there are coach options for some, and options are improving on some lines.
If you were in the office more than one day a week, a long commute from a regional town perhaps could be partly countered by renting or buying a cheap studio apartment in or near the CBD to use. Spend some of the week in the office/apartment, the rest of the time in your country bolthole.
A less nuclear option is outer Melbourne rather than regional Victoria – if you can find a patch of suburbia similar to your own, with the services and amenity you want. Just don’t expect a tram (or any other public transport) every 10 minutes at the end of your street.
Wild ideas, but would it actually work?
For me, I quickly came to the conclusion that if the current lockdown means isolation from friends and family, then moving too far away would lock this in permanently. For me, that outweighs the benefits.
But it might work for some people.