Time Travel

It’s a com­mute, but (hope­fully) not as you know it. Sarah Lang talks to New Zealan­ders who spend hours each day com­mut­ing into the city from dif­fer­ent towns – or even dif­fer­ent re­gions – and asks, is it worth it?

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Cover Story -

Dave Mate­haere’s alarm in­ter­rupts his dreams at 4.40am, when his wife and two young daugh­ters still have a good two hours of kip left. He show­ers, dresses, gulps a cup of cof­fee, and by 5.30am is ei­ther driv­ing out of Hamil­ton, or stop­ping first to pick up com­pany stock for his job as a tech­ni­cal ad­viser in the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try.

Com­mut­ing 125 kilo­me­tres to Auck­land on Mon­days, Wed­nes­days and Fri­days takes him an hour and 40 min­utes each way, all be­ing well. “On a bad day, it can be three or even three-and-a-half hours.” That’s if there’s bad traf­fic, an ac­ci­dent or other is­sue. On Tues­days and Thurs­days, Mate­haere com­mutes 100 kilo­me­tres to Thames, which takes an hour and 20 min­utes “on a good day”.

He starts his drive home bang on 4pm – of­ten mak­ing work calls on hands-free. If he’s tired, he lis­tens to Ra­dio Live and oc­ca­sion­ally pulls over for a power nap. He gets home around 5.30pm, and goes to bed any­where be­tween 8.30 and 10pm.

Mate­haere, who moved back from Auck­land to Hamil­ton in 2005, likes liv­ing there close to ex­tended fam­ily. But rental prices play a part, too. “My fam­ily can be com­fort­able on one in­come in Hamil­ton. In Auck­land, we’d need a flat­mate to get by fi­nan­cially.” How­ever, the bet­ter-pay­ing work is in Auck­land. “Some­times I do think about mov­ing back there.”

If he wasn’t com­mut­ing 750-odd hours a year, what would he spend that time on? “I’d prob­a­bly sleep a lot more! And spend more time with the fam­ily.”

The “su­per-com­muter” is a well-known phe­nom­e­non in sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lises such as New York and Lon­don, and even has its own Wikipedia def­i­ni­tion: es­sen­tially, some­one who works in a metropoli­tan area but doesn’t live there. This trend is now emerg­ing in New Zealand, es­pe­cially as hous­ing short­ages, high house prices and ex­pen­sive rentals see peo­ple mov­ing out of Auck­land and Welling­ton while keep­ing jobs in the city.

Rather than com­mut­ing from the sub­urbs to the cen­tral city, more peo­ple are buy­ing or rent­ing in dif­fer­ent towns or even dif­fer­ent re­gions, and com­mut­ing on trains, buses or cars for an hour or more each way. For some peo­ple, it’s a long-term life­style choice not to live in the city, but oth­ers are lit­er­ally spend­ing their time to save on hous­ing costs. It’s not just the North Is­land, ei­ther. Fol­low­ing the earth­quakes, more peo­ple have moved out of Christchurch – par­tic­u­larly North Can­ter­bury – and are com­mut­ing back in.

On cen­sus day in 2013, 2058 peo­ple com­muted from the Waimakariri District (north and north­west of Christchurch) to Christchurch city; 810 peo­ple com­muted from Hamil­ton and 1176 more from the Waikato district to Auck­land; while 4698 com­muted from the Kapiti Coast to Welling­ton city and 168 from the Wairarapa to Welling­ton city. But su­per-com­muters new and old reckon that num­ber has shot up in the past four years. This doesn’t sur­prise Jenny Om­bler, As­sis­tant Re­search Fel­low at the NZ Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able Cities. “We know so much has changed in re­cent years, es­pe­cially given ris­ing house prices.”

It’s not news that an “ac­tive com­mute” – cy­cling, run­ning or walk­ing to work – is good for you. But even if su­per-com­muters walk or bike to and from the re­spec­tive train or bus sta­tions, most of their com­mute is “pas­sive”. And a pas­sive com­mute any longer than half an hour one way can take a toll. There’s no lo­cal re­search, but a Cana­dian study found a com­mute of just 20 min­utes can cause pro­fes­sional burnout. AUK Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics study found each ex­tra minute com­mut­ing neg­a­tively af­fects anx­i­ety, hap­pi­ness and well­be­ing.

Dave Mate­haere usu­ally grabs a ser­vice-sta­tion pie or a Mc­don­ald’s ba­con-and-egg Mc­muf­fin for break­fast. “I’ve put on a bit of weight.” But Mate­haere stresses that he doesn’t dis­like his com­mute. “Peo­ple are shocked I’ve done the com­mute for three years and that I don’t mind do­ing it. Se­ri­ously. I’m a car guy. I’m very com­fort­able driv­ing and pa­tient in traf­fic.”

Cu­ri­ously, re­search con­ducted by the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and the Univer­sity of Sh­effield shows that com­mut­ing neg­a­tively af­fects the psy­cho­log­i­cal health of women far more than men. The hy­poth­e­sis is that this is prob­a­bly be­cause women tend to add on su­per­mar­ket runs, pick-ups and drop-offs, and shoul­der most of the house­work. Su­san

Trod­den is found­ing steer­ing-group mem­ber of The Rail Op­por­tu­nity Net­work (TRON), which for two years has pushed for a Hamil­ton-auck­land com­muter-train ser­vice. Trod­den used to com­mute by car from Hamil­ton to Auck­land about twice a month and hated it. As CEO of Te Awa­mutu Cham­ber of Com­merce, she saw how pro­duc­tiv­ity lost to com­mut­ing was af­fect­ing busi­nesses. Now CEO of Or­ches­tras Cen­tral in Hamil­ton, she spends an hour a day in to­tal driv­ing to and from her Piron­gia home. “Even that is some­times ex­haust­ing.”

The Hamil­ton-auck­land com­mute has taken a heavy toll on many peo­ple she knows well, some driv­ing six hours a day. She’ll say what they can’t with­out risk­ing their jobs or rep­u­ta­tions. “You’re tired, los­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, get­ting stressed, get­ting road rage, get­ting a bad pos­ture, eat­ing rub­bish, liv­ing on cof­fee, not sleep­ing prop­erly. When one part­ner is hardly ever at home, it’s re­ally detri­men­tal to your re­la­tion­ship and bad for your chil­dren. I’ve heard of kids with care­givers from 6am till 8pm.” Trod­den has seen com­muters be­come se­ri­ously un­well, and re­la­tion­ships break up. She’s not sur­prised that a Swedish study found if one part­ner com­mutes for longer than 45 min­utes, the cou­ple is 40 per cent like­lier to di­vorce. “The so­cial im­pact is huge, too. Who’s go­ing to coach the kids’ sports team or go to par­ent-teacher in­ter­views?”

If a “pas­sive” com­mute is a must, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing that stud­ies show com­muters who drive are less happy and more anx­ious than pub­lic trans­port com­muters. Jenny Om­bler from the NZ Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able Cities cites Marie Louise Rus­sell’s PHD on time use in pub­lic trans­port. “Peo­ple dis­liked wait­ing times and wast­ing time but a lot of peo­ple viewed the ac­tual travel time as a pos­i­tive, us­ing it as work time or down­time. There’s also the so­cial in­ter­ac­tion – not nec­es­sar­ily talk­ing but peo­ple-watch­ing.” Com­muter trains can be used as mov­ing of­fices, as Trod­den points out. “Maybe you can leave home at 8.30am rather than 6am, be­cause you’ve spent the train trip work­ing.” Trans­port

Min­is­ter Si­mon Bridges has said a Hamil­ton-auck­land com­muter train will hap­pen even­tu­ally, but “not overnight”. How­ever, Trod­den says the time is now, with around 3000 peo­ple cur­rently com­mut­ing from Hamil­ton to Auck­land. “If 10 per cent travel by train, the train’s full.” TRON ar­gues that the in­fra­struc­ture (in­clud­ing pas­sen­ger car­riages) is there, and that de­mand has grown since 2011, when Waikato Re­gional Coun­cil found four in five Hamil­to­ni­ans sup­ported a ser­vice. TRON has pub­lished a de­tailed re­port ar­gu­ing for a com­muter-rail ser­vice, and will present its strate­gic busi­ness plan to Waikato Re­gional Coun­cil later this month, with Hamil­ton City Coun­cil’s sup­port. Also Chair of Piron­gia Tourism, Trod­den says a com­muter train would bring more tourists to the Waikato – and safely. “Driver fa­tigue is an is­sue.”

Trod­den be­lieves a com­muter-rail ser­vice will com­ple­ment the NZ Trans­port Agency’s 12-year Waikato Ex­press­way project, set to de­liver a four-lane high­way from the Bom­bay Hills to south of Cam­bridge by De­cem­ber 2020. Though this will help, traf­fic vol­umes will rise, with Waikato District ex­pect­ing a pop­u­la­tion in­crease of 26 per cent by 2031.

How­ever, a com­mute by train is 50 per cent faster than a car trip, and also trumps the car for eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons. The Aus­tralasian Rail­way As­so­ci­a­tion’s 2015 study The Costs of Com­mut­ing found road travel pro­duces 40 per cent more car­bon pol­lu­tion than rail, with an in­di­vid­ual’s 25km car com­mute pro­duc­ing around three tonnes of green­house gases an­nu­ally. The study shows the av­er­age New Zealand com­muter can save more than $2100 a year by tak­ing pub­lic trans­port. There are no fig­ures for how much pro­duc­tiv­ity lost to com­mut­ing is cost­ing the coun­try, but traf­fic con­ges­tion costs Auck­land’s econ­omy $1.3 bil­lion a year.

It’s6.55am and the wind is bit­ing at the Carter­ton rail­way sta­tion, with its full carpark. Most peo­ple wait­ing for the 7.06 Wairarapa Line train to Welling­ton are glued to their phones, in their own lit­tle bub­bles. As the train horn sounds, peo­ple swarm the plat­form as if from nowhere. The train has wi-fi and ta­bles, and some lap­tops come out im­me­di­ately. Com­muters say the train’s got busier over the last two years, par­tic­u­larly as peo­ple who can’t af­ford houses in Welling­ton move to the Wairarapa.

Blair Cos­ford boards at Feather­ston. He com­mutes to cen­tral Welling­ton nine days a fort­night for his IT job at a bank. He lives and works close to the re­spec­tive train sta­tions, so it’s about 80 min­utes from his Feather­ston home to his Feather­ston Street of­fice.

Cos­ford and wife So­phie, a full-time mother to 3-year-old Ge­orge, were rent­ing in Whitby, Porirua, when they started look­ing to buy in Welling­ton in Oc­to­ber 2016, right as house prices shot up. “If we could have bought in Welling­ton or the Hutt, we’d never have con­sid­ered mov­ing to the Wairarapa.” In April, they bought in Feather­ston: the clos­est Wairarapa town to Welling­ton, with fam­ily liv­ing nearby.

“I was quite ap­pre­hen­sive about com­mut­ing that dis­tance. The Rimu­taka Hill was a men­tal bar­rier.” Rather than driv­ing that risky route, Cos­ford catches ei­ther the 7am or 7.30am train. He usu­ally catches the 4.25 train home, and some­times the 5.30pm ser­vice, mean­ing he can put Ge­orge to bed. “I quite like that time to do what­ever I want: lis­ten to mu­sic, doze, maybe an­swer emails.”

There are down­sides, though: “The weather, es­pe­cially the rain, while you’re wait­ing at [un­cov­ered] Feather­ston Sta­tion; ser­vice in­ter­rup­tion like break­downs about once ev­ery three weeks; the rigid­ity of only three ser­vices each morn­ing and each evening; and when I can’t par­tic­i­pate in work func­tions be­cause the last train leaves at 6.22.”

Com­par­a­tively, the cap­i­tal is well served by com­muter-train ser­vices run­ning from the Kapiti Coast, the Wairarapa and the daily 125-minute ser­vice from Palmer­ston North. But fur­ther south, there’s no com­muter train be­tween Christchurch city and greater Christchurch de­spite on­go­ing con­ges­tion on the main road north (State High­way 1 then 74). As an NZTA re­port out­lines, since the earth­quakes, res­i­den­tial and busi­ness re­lo­ca­tions north­west have seen con­ges­tion grow. Be­tween 2010 and 2016, daily traf­fic vol­umes from north Can­ter­bury’s Waimakariri and Hu­runui districts to Christchurch city in­creased by 10,000 to more than 48,000.

Con­se­quently, the Christchurch North­ern Cor­ri­dor project is now un­der way. It in­cludes an NZTA project to ex­tend the north­ern mo­tor­way through to QEII Drive, up­grad­ing QEII Drive to four lanes in one area, two city coun­cil projects link­ing the mo­tor­way to key streets, and an ad­di­tional north­bound lane on the Waimakariri Mo­tor­way Bridge. A third south­bound lane on the bridge will likely be signed off this month. But with Waimakariri now the South Is­land’s third­largest district by pop­u­la­tion, and more growth ex­pected, the NZTA still ex­pects com­muter-traf­fic vol­umes and con­ges­tion to worsen. Eighty-

five per cent of ve­hi­cles cross­ing the Waimakariri River have a sin­gle oc­cu­pant. But be­hind one wind­screen are two faces: Christchurch soft­ware en­gi­neers John Whit­taker and Ken For­tune. They be­came car-pool­ers through the gov­ern­ment web­site Let’s Car­pool, now called Smart Travel (it con­nects reg­u­lar and one-off car-pool­ers, and out­lines cy­cling and pub­lic trans­port op­tions). The pair had never met, de­spite both work­ing at Trim­ble NZ in Christchurch city and both liv­ing near Swan­nanoa in Waimakariri.

Whit­taker dis­likes com­mut­ing by car, but chose to car­pool pri­mar­ily be­cause of the fuel cost, then the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact. “I’d love to see more peo­ple try car­pool­ing: it’s a zero-cost way to cut con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion, and it halves com­mute costs. Plus it’s nice not al­ways driv­ing, and chat­ting makes time pass more quickly.” Their trip takes about 50 min­utes – longer than be­fore the earth­quakes, but bet­ter than the 75 min­utes it took about two years ago. Whit­taker says vari­able speed lim­its and road im­prove­ments have helped, but there’s still nose-to-tail traf­fic in places.

He doesn’t fancy the bus, and not just be­cause it’d be stuck in traf­fic too. “I’d have to walk or cy­cle for a kilo­me­tre, then catch the bus, then cross town. I’d like a pop-up train ser­vice tri­alled to see whether the de­mand is there.” For­tune says any ser­vice shouldn’t charge you to board with a bike, nor to park your car at the sta­tion. He also pro­poses a smart­phone app to pre-pur­chase trips that are cheap­est when booked early, so pas­sen­gers com­mit and op­er­a­tors have a rough head count.

Se­cu­rity firm busi­ness­man Tane Apanui, NZ First’s Wi­gram can­di­date, has put to­gether a de­tailed pro­posal for a com­muter-rail ser­vice for Waimakiriri, and Sel­wyn to the south, us­ing ex­ist­ing rail lines and car­riages, with a mod­est cost­ing of $1.8 mil­lion, (com­pared with an of­fi­cial re­port’s $10m es­ti­mate). In May, the Greater Christchurch Pub­lic Trans­port Joint Com­mit­tee de­cided not to take Apanui’s pro­posal fur­ther, though it won’t rule com­muter rail out while con­sid­er­ing its Fu­ture Pub­lic Trans­port Busi­ness Case. Apanui wants a trial now, say­ing some com­muters are start­ing their drive at 5am to avoid con­ges­tion. “I have 350 peo­ple keen to catch a train run­ning be­tween Christchurch and Waipara [60 kilo­me­tres north]. The train feels quick and is spent be­ing pro­duc­tive and with­out stress. In a car, two hours of stress a day equals 10 a week. Who needs that?”

Not

Dave Mate­haere spends 750-odd hours in his car each year, com­mut­ing from Auck­land to Hamil­ton. PHOTO: CHRIS MC­K­EEN/STUFF

Su­san Trod­den is push­ing for a com­muter-train ser­vice from Hamil­ton to Auck­land. PHOTO: KELLY HODEL/STUFF Blair Cos­ford takes the train from Feather­ston to Welling­ton. PHOTO: MONIQUE FORD/STUFF

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