Changing Patterns of Commuting

Kiron Chatterjee and Ben Clark
13 Dec 2019

Travel to work is shaped by the city but also shapes the city. It affects the character of the city and how it is experienced by all who live there. It affects whether a city prospers – whether it maintains and attracts economic activity. With the ‘Changing Patterns of Commuting’ issue of the Built Environment we wanted to get a contemporary picture of commuting journeys in urban areas and how they are changing as the world we live in changes. We wanted to get a truly global picture encompassing the fast-growing mega cities of the Global South and the evolving situation in the established urban areas of the Global North. We wanted to consider the commuting of the entire workforce, including low-income workers who are often overlooked in research studies.

    The ten papers in the issue cover three continents and seven countries. We were fortunate that a diverse and talented set of authors was willing to contribute to the special issue and ensured we were able to fulfil the aims above. Each paper offers new insights on how commuting journeys vary across space and how this is influenced by spatial development and economic, technological and cultural change.

The Location of Employment

Two papers reveal how the distribution of economic activity influences commuting patterns. Schleith et al. show that polycentric urban forms are associated with shorter commuting distances in the United States than monocentric or sprawling urban forms. Similarly, Nielsen finds evidence that living in close proximity to ‘subcentres’ in the Copenhagen urban region is associated with shorter commutes but the traditional centre of the city still exerts a dominant role in commuting patterns.

    Two other papers show how the quality of employment influences commuting distances. Coombes finds that longer than average commute distances in London and the south-east of England are explained by the availability of higher income jobs that are not available in other regions of the country, implying that localized commuting in the north of England is a rational response to the lack of better employment opportunities rather than a lack of aspiration. In contrast, Sharma shows that commuting between rural hinterlands and urban centres in India is driven by underemployment in rural areas and the opportunity to obtain higher wages from jobs in urban centres.

Opportunities and Constraints for Different Social Groups

Three papers look at commuting within global city regions and how this is evolving. Jain and Hecht show private motorized transport use is at its highest among residents on the fringe of the city in Delhi, where multinational offices and international factories have located, while public transport use is important for those commuting from further afield. Zheng et al. confirm ‘the decoupling of home and work locations’ in Beijing following the abolition of the ‘work unit’ (danwei) planning system (through which workers were deliberately housed close to work places), but they find that a poor ‘urban adversity group’ are clustered in parts of the city that were formerly rural villages, have much higher levels of self-containment and are more reliant on walking and cycling. By contrast, a ‘suburban comfort’ group of younger, wealthier residents have longer commutes with greater reliance on public transit and car. Maciejewska et al. find single mothers in the New York Metropolitan region have been suburbanising over time and use public transport more than married mothers, and like the rest of the population of New York have trended away from car commuting to public transport commuting. In each of these three cases it is evident that public transport is essential in enabling access to job opportunities for those living outside inner parts of the city region.

    Blumenberg and King look at the trend over time in commuting distances across all Metropolitan areas of the United States and find that increasing suburbanization of the urban population has led to longer commutes being faced by more workers, including low-income workers, minority ethnic groups and those without cars for whom these are likely to be particularly tough to bear and for which it is suggested policy responses are merited to alleviate the risk of poverty.

Changing Commuting Practices

The two remaining papers examine how commuting practices are changing as the nature of employment changes. Ravalet and Rérat look at teleworking trends in Switzerland and find that teleworking is emerging over time more strongly for particular population groups (men and the over 30s) and teleworkers live further from their place of work than non-teleworkers. They suggest therefore that teleworking ‘may consequently decrease the propensity for residential relocation and increase tolerance for long distance commuting’. Plyushteva explores how choices over commuting options and experiences of the commute are influenced by co-workers in Sofia, Bulgaria, which has seen rapid suburban development since the collapse of state socialism in 1989. She found options available to workers could be highly dependent on provisions made by managers and that travelling together with co-workers could be a source of both comfort and unease.

Take-Home Messages

A striking theme that emerges across the contributions is of there being inequalities in the commuting burden. It is apparent that better employment opportunities are available for less advantaged groups in society if they are able to take on long-distance commutes but this is not feasible for all sections of society (as shown most clearly in Beijing). A key cause of this is the separation of affordable housing from employment opportunities (which applies equally in the cities of Asia, North America and Europe).

    Across the papers, a common message is that high quality public transport, whether in the form of traditional rail/metro systems or modern rapid transit, can play a vital role in enabling workers living in suburban, fringe and rural periphery areas to access jobs in urban centres. However, this needs to be deployed more widely than it is currently to spread opportunities to a wider section of the population. This applies as much to long-established urban regions (such as New York) as it does in fast growing urban regions (such as Beijing, Delhi or Sofia).

    The papers confirm, first of all, the important influence of spatial development and labour market structure for commuting, implying a need for integrated land-use, economic and transport policies to influence how people access employment. Secondly, they show that different social groups are spatially clustered and have different opportunities and constraints when it comes to travelling to appropriate jobs which match their skills. The commuting requirements of different social groups need recognition in policies concerned with access to jobs, housing and the transport connections between them. Thirdly, the papers demonstrate that commuting practices are evolving as a response to socio-technical trends and to the changing nature of cities. Consideration needs to be given to these changing practices, as well as the more traditional issues of the location of jobs, homes and transport services.


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