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The Future of Commuting

Researchers posit that, in the future, commuting times will not change, but distances will.

The term “commuter” derives from the early days of train travel in American cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago; in the 1840s, the railways offered a “commuted” or reduced fare for travellers who journeyed weekly on the same routes.

Commuters usually travel at the same time of day, the so-called morning and evening rush hours, which produces congestion on roads and public transport systems that are not always designed or correctly maintained to manage peak demands. And although commuting is commonly used to refer to individuals who live farther away from their workplaces; nowadays, many city residents also have to face long journeys to reach their workplace.

Marchetti’s Constant

Researchers have determined that, on average, commutes to work – whether one walks, cycles, drives or takes a bus or train – take thirty minutes. Mobility experts refer to this – the average time spent commuting from one’s home to one’s office or vice versa – as Marchetti’s Constant.

In a work entitled Anthropological Invariants in Travel Behaviour, published in 1994, Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti posited that although urban planning and transport modes may differ vastly, individuals seem to gradually adjust their lives – as well as the location of their homes and offices – so that the average daily time spent travelling remains constant.

The physicist explained that the total average time spent travelling between home and office doesn’t exceed one hour, across all societies and even across history. Indeed, the physicist calculated that early humans travelling on foot at about 5km/hr would move over a radius of 2.5 km and verified this hypothesis by observing individuals travelling on foot in villages in rural areas of Greece.

A related concept that has corroborated Marchetti’s work is that of “travel time budget” described by Yacov Zahavi, who also noticed that people seem to have “a stable daily amount of time they make available for travel.”

In fact, commuting time is not only often frowned upon as lost time, but it is also directly correlated to health issues brought on by obesity (caused by snacking and lack of exercise) and higher blood pressure.

Driverless Cars and Hyperloops

A research team at Rockefeller University has recently studied how Marchetti’s Constant will be affected by new emerging forms of transport: smart, traffic-defeating, self-driving cars, extremely fast trains and even 800-km/hour Hyperloops.

Researcher Jesse Ausubel calculated that Americans take, on average, 26.4 minutes to reach their workplace and investigated how this would be affected by faster modes of transport. The answer, in short, is it will not. Research models indicate that Marchetti’s Constant will continue to hold true no matter how fast and efficient our new modes of transport will become. What will probably change is that we may decide to live even farther away from our workplaces – by the sea, out in the countryside, or even in a different state – but the average commute time is not expected to change.

Like Marchetti, Jesse Ausbel also delved into history, determining that the average “commute time” of Ancient Romans was probably about half-an-hour, on foot, the same time spent on public transport (or car) by commuters, today.

Urban Planning

Commuting has had a large impact on modern life. It has allowed cities to grow to sizes that were previously impractical, and it has led to the proliferation of suburbs. Many large cities or conurbations are surrounded by commuter belts, now known as metropolitan areas. The prototypical commuter lives in one of these areas and travels daily to work or to school in the city.

However, if the propensity for human travel has never exceeded 30 minutes, how much more can our cities expand? Larger cities like London and New York, in which average travel times are respectively 46 and 41 minutes, are already pushing the limit described by Marchetti’s Constant. In fact, in many densely populated cities around the world, 30 minutes on public transport systems are not sufficient to cover much more than 10 kilometres.

Does this mean that we are unlikely to see the rise of megalopolises? Marchetti claims that it depends on the speed of our transport systems. Faster transport will allow individuals to move farther away from their workplaces.

And interestingly, most Hyperloop segments (currently the fastest envisioned mode of civilian transport) are currently being planned over distances that will take 30 minutes to cover, such as San Francisco-Los Angeles and New York-Washington.

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