Is commuting killing us?

Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing. Read the rest of this entry »