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. 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?”