Ryan Sheales files off the bus with the rest of the commuters. The first rays of sun light the path just enough for them to see. They silently march the couple of well-worn blocks to Mitcham Station.
“You can get off the bus in front of the station, but everyone gets off at Mitcham Road because it takes forever for the bus to get through the next three sets of traffic lights,” Sheales explains.
Dressed in a navy blazer and a white button-up, Sheales pauses to top up his Myki and descends the stairs to wait for the next train from either Belgrave or Lilydale to take him to his job in the CBD, where he works as a communications manager in social policy.
It’s Monday, the dawn of another working week, and much of the rest of the sprawling city’s suburban workforce is doing the same – stepping onto public transport praying to get a seat, or crawling in their vehicles through congested traffic, hoping to score a not-too expensive park when they finally get within reach of their workplaces.
The 2016 census revealed the number of commuters in Melbourne across all forms of transport has risen by 182,000 people since 2011. Which explains why claiming a seat on the train or a park in the city increasingly feels like a competitive sport, and why promises around public transport and roads are sounding loud in this federal election contest: Labor promising $2 billion for the Melbourne Metro; the Liberals backing the revival of the East West Link. Local Liberal MP Michael Sukkar also pledging $45 million to building three new multi-story car parks with 500 spots at Croydon, Ringwood, and Mitcham stations.
Melbourne’s population is predicted to almost double by 2050. This is the same population as London’s today. But while London’s metropolitan network boasts 1000 trains, Melbourne only has 200.
Infrastructure to prepare for this crowded future was a big ticket item in the 2018 Victorian election, with $1.96 billion dedicated to continuing the biggest overhaul of transport in Victoria’s history. But it’s only a fraction of what is required, with one expert arguing a 300-400% increase in trains is needed to meet the explosive increase.
For his money, Sheales would prefer more investment in public transport, and in road infrastructure incorporating priority flow for buses and cyclists. “I don’t think our congestion worries will go away by just blindly building more roads.”
When the train pulls in, Sheales steps onto the carriage and weaves his way through the passengers lining the aisles. Mitcham is the seventh stop along the Lilydale line. At 7.39am, all the seats are full. He finds some space in the middle of the cabin.
Being tall is a bonus during peak-hour – Sheales comfortably grips the yellow strap dangling from the ceiling. Everyone is tightly gripping something, making sure a stray finger doesn’t accidentally touch the stranger pushed next to them. There are 17 more stops and 27 minutes before they land at Parliament station.
Like so many other couples who spent their student and early career years in the inner city, when the moment came to start thinking about raising a family, Sheales and his partner began contemplating a move to the suburbs. The search for an affordable home led them to rent in Blackburn, not so far from where Sheales grew up.
“The main rub is affordability and the commute,” he explains. “It is really a zero-sum game though – you say ‘we’ll move a little bit further out because it is a little bit more affordable’, but with every move-out, the commute becomes longer and less tolerable. So, if you place an absolute premium on housing affordability, you pay for that in more minutes and hours on public transport.” The train pulls in at Blackburn, and more people crowd on.
“I did some vague maths and if I do an hour commute a day – an hour there an hour back – that is the equivalent of 20 days a year that I spent commuting on the transit system.
“So that is actually a huge chunk of my life. You know, it really affects your time and your happiness.”
A former journalist, Sheales has a keen professional and personal interest in the policy landscape. And as a commuter, aspiring home owner and now father of two, many of the big issues in play in this federal campaign will have a significant impact in his household and neighbourhood.
“Now that we have a family we are starting to put down roots,” Sheales explains “Our daughter is three, she is in pre-school, and our son is 15 months.”
The family started looking to buy a house, but then a sudden notice of eviction saw them scurrying to make the move to a new rental property just down the road in Mitcham.
“Our landlord made the decision to sell the house we were in. Which is his prerogative, but we suddenly had to take two small children and find a new place to live and move in six weeks. Which was really hard.”
“One of the reasons we didn’t want to move too far is we had our daughter in council-run day-care. The whole thing about putting down roots, is once you do it, it is difficult to tear away from it. So, we put buying a house on ice, made the move to Mitcham, and we are now sort of just settled.”
Child-care and waitlists go hand in hand. A report released last year by the Centre for Independent Research found parents of children under two years old can face waiting periods of up to two years. Renters click their heels three times when signing up for child-care, wishing for nothing to change in their rental agreement while waiting to reach the top of the list. Some 60% of the population in Deakin are families with children.
It’s why child care is resonating as a key issue in the business end of the campaign. Labor has pledged a $4 billion child care support package offering subsidies to families that has earned plaudits from experts. “This is a prime example of something that, if that does come to pass, it would really change our life. If the Coalition was to match that, it would be amazing,” Sheales says.
Even with housing prices cooling off a little, every dollar counts for families trying to keep – or get – a permanent roof over their heads.
In 1984, Sheales’ parents bought a house 10 minutes from Mitcham in Vermont South for $96,000. They sold the house in 1994 just before the housing boom. It sold again in 2016 for $1.1 million – just under the local median.
“The thing that scares me is that housing is going up well beyond what people are earning. It used to be 2-3 times the annual salary and now its 10-12 times,” Sheales says.
As the train enters Glenferrie station a few people get off. A seat becomes vacant next to Sheales. He scans the aisle to make sure no one else is vying for the spot, then takes a seat.
He says he worries the toll of the long commute on family and personal life will only increase once his partner returns to work in the CBD after maternity leave.
“We will need to weigh up the cost of childcare, the cost of kinder, and pick-up and drop-offs. Realistically, one of us would need to work close to where the kids are,” Sheales says.
“If they are sick, and you get the call to get them and you are an hour away without a car, that will cause issues.”
Sheales says Labor’s announcement for universal access to kinder is something that would really support his family. “Extending the universal kinder to three-year olds would mean a huge cost saving for so many families, including ours.
“I would also like to see some announcements around supporting people to get their first home, whether that is reducing incentives like concessions and rebates for people that already own homes, or something more targeted at prospective home buyers.”
Sheales exits the train and joins the swarm of people filing onto the Parliament station’s dizzyingly steep escalator. Many of these people will also spend 20-plus days a year commuting to and from work.
Walking up the stairs onto Bourke Street breathes new life into the day. Sheales ends his commute to the city the same as most Melburnians – with a coffee to kick start his work day.
In eight hours he will do the whole thing again, backwards. Door to door, he spends 11 hours away from home – a typical day at work.