The crazy amount of time we spend commuting
"IT'S very debilitating, its very demotivating," says Kyle Price, 31, an office worker who commutes from the Central Coast of New South Wales to Sydney four days a week.
"There's not that much industry on the Central Coast. There's a bit of tourism, a bit of manufacturing but besides that you have to go to Sydney to get work, especially work where you get a decent salary," he says.
As a full time office worker in the city, he estimates he was spending the equivalent of 50 days a year sitting on a train commuting to work - or between four and five hours a day. A routine he says had serious health impacts.
"The trains are full. Some occasions you're struggling to get a seat … I was getting a cold once a month, run down, stuffy nose, coughing, you have to take a day off work, and if you're not on a salary, that's a day's pay," he says.
He's changed to driving since, costing him an extra $30 a week in fuel not to mention the frustration of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic long before he reaches Sydney's gridlock. Though on the plus side he hasn't been sick once.
"The freeway is chockas. The primary way to get down to the Central Coast is by Kariong Hill. That's f**king chockas as well," Mr Price says.
It's a simple equation. As Barnaby Joyce suggested, many working class Australians left our biggest cities in search of affordable housing, relocating to cheaper regional areas such as Wollongong and the Central Coast in NSW or Ballarat, the Geelong region, and Gippsland in Victoria.
The housing might have been cheaper but for many the employment opportunities required to pay off their homes have not followed them, forcing them commute back to the city. In the case of Sydney, some people are coming from as far away as Newcastle - over 160km away.
"This idea of, well, if you can't afford a house get a better job. It's not that easy," explains Dr Liz Allen, a demographer from the Australian National University, specialising in social trends, inequality and census and data collections.
"That idea of, 'well, just move and you'll be able to afford a house,' has no connection to the labour market you participate in. It's totally unrealistic to expect someone to uproot from where they might have family and friends and move somewhere where it's affordable.
"It's affordable for a reason and that could mean that you then have to sacrifice and make a longer commute," she says.
In fact, half of the net job growth in Sydney and Melbourne over a five-year period has occurred within 2km of their respective city centres, according to a productivity and geography study by the Grattan Institute.
"This dream to own one's own patch of Australia is quickly fading away for many people," says Dr Allen.
"We see significant intergenational inequality. The problem is the people who have experienced the greatest kind of fortunes, (who experienced) the golden age post WWII in their pathway to owning a home and starting a family and having almost dreamlike employment rates and very small unemployment rates, they're now making the crucial decisions in terms of political decisions.
"They're holding political office, and making decisions and using their experiences to make these decisions for people but they're completely out of touch. So the reality for many Australians I don't think is appreciated by the politicians that represent them," she says.
James Balter, 44, the owner of a rope access painting and decorating business, sees it from both sides. He spends at least three hours in the car a day but all things considered doesn't mind the commute, and is emphatic about his decision to move to the Central Coast.
"I wouldn't change it for the world. When I made that choice I said to myself, you're gonna do the drive, just chill. It gets frustrating some days but look what you come home to, look what you've bought your family and that sort of stuff. It's definitely worth it," he says.
Being the boss, however, he can pick and choose his times, something his workers aren't in a position to do.
"I'm lucky otherwise I'd just be doing the slog like everyone else, like the guys who work for me, they have to sit in that traffic on the way home every day."
Mr Balter agrees the infrastructure in Sydney is melting down and is mystified as to why that wasn't recognised and acted on sooner.
"They're screwing Sydney day by day by building all those units along the main arterials. It's just going to get busier and busier. It's bulls**t. They're building buildings but there is no transport," he says.
"There should be a high-speed rail between, here (the Central Coast) and Sydney and Newcastle and all that sort of stuff like there is everywhere. That's obvious. That should have been done - it should be being done - but for some reason in this fuel sucking, coal sucking society we live in, with the governments we got at the moment, that won't change."
Years of poor planning and failing to invest in appropriate infrastructure has created a logjam in our cities, agrees Dr Allen. And it's a problem that is going to get worse before it gets better.
"Transport infrastructure, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne is deficient … Sydney's current's infrastructure is decades out of date, decades," she says.
"The idea is that we just build another toll road and by the time we build that toll road it's already deficient. There's not that long-sighted strategic view on the infrastructure development that we need."
As a result key Australian workers are finding themselves faced with serious health and wellbeing consequences due to work and commuting pressure.
"It adds pressure, we become harried, our ability to cook healthy meals is impacted, the time we have to spend with loved ones is impacted and that down time needed to come down from the day is impacted as well," says Dr Allen.
Sydney office worker, Kyle Price, doesn't need telling.
"It makes you feel depressed. You're giving a significant amount of time of your week, of your month, of your years to get to and from work. Spending that amount of time simply getting to and from work is very disheartening," he says.
With Mr Price far from alone in feeling the pain of the commute, Dr Allen says it might be time to rethink the very way we conduct our working week.
"There's a lot of interest overseas in reducing the working day and a lot of focus is on this idea (that) maybe if we worked five hours a day we're probably working the same level in terms of productivity as if we're working an eight hour day," she says.
Professor of Urban Planning at Sydney University, Peter Phibbs, says another obvious way to alleviate the problem would be to "provide a broader range of housing in Sydney at a variety of price points".
"People are travelling long distances to find a house they can afford and they're trading off driving time for housing," he says.
For an immediate fix, Dr Allen suggests staggering the start of our work days and school hours.
"Something people forget to factor in with commute times is that if you are sitting in traffic you are traffic, you are part of the traffic problem, so little changes to the way we either start work or the way we commute to work, or the time school starts, or the way people commute to schools, little changes here and they can actually have a massive impact on the time spent overall for people in traffic and congestion," says Dr Allen.
Ultimately, she says, the writing has been on the walls for years, meaning Australians have every right to feel let down by their government.
"Infrastructure, particularly with regards public transport, has not kept pace with population growth and population growth is something that just doesn't happen overnight, it's a slow process," Dr Allen says.
"If we're serious about what we know to be an issue of health and inequality with regard to travel, commuting, employment, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and invest.
"Because this is an investment not just in infrastructure but population wellbeing and when population wellbeing is maximised then our productivity is maximised as well."