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?
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.