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?

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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.


In 2016, Health in a Hurry, a re­port from UK char­ity the Royal So­ci­ety for Pub­lic Health, showed longer com­mute times are as­so­ci­ated with in­creased stress and frus­tra­tion, higher blood pres­sure and BMI, and re­duced time for ac­tiv­i­ties that en­hance health and qual­ity of life, such as ex­er­cis­ing, sleep­ing, cook­ing and spend­ing time with friends and fam­ily.

Other stud­ies im­pli­cate long com­mutes in neck and back pain, in­som­nia, de­pres­sion, and a re­duced life ex­pectancy. It can also cause weight gain. A UK study found the av­er­age com­muter con­sumes nearly 800 ad­di­tional calo­ries a week while trav­el­ling, due to un­healthy snack­ing and grab­bing take­aways.

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

John Whit­taker with Ken Fortune who he car pools with from Waimakariri to Christchurch. PHOTO: DAVID WALKER/STUFF

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