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 »


Do we spend too much time commuting?

Time spent commuting to work, Melbourne

I’m currently reading a new book by writer and journalist Jenny Sinclair, When we think about Melbourne: the imagination of a city. This fascinating book sets out to discover what makes Melbourne unique and, according to the cover blurb, ultimately concludes that it’s all in our collective imagination.

I’m only a little way into the book but a comment she makes – just an aside really – caught my attention and sent me scurrying to the spreadsheet. She’s strolling through Victorian era parts of Melbourne when she’s:

reminded that there’s another (Melbourne), in which workers with affordable houses in Sunbury or Hoppers Crossing have no choice but to drive for hours every day to get to their jobs

This passage reminded me of Richard Florida’s recent claim that commutes in the US are so long they’re injurious to health. I made the point in this post that Florida’s methodology is flawed and time spent commuting in the US is actually relatively short.

But what about Melbourne – is Sinclair’s understanding that many Melburnites “drive for hours” to get to work correct? Read the rest of this entry »


Is commuting (very) bad for you?

Let me say from the outset that I’ve long been sceptical about some of the methods used by Richard Florida, celebrated author of The Rise of the Creative Class. And I’m not the only one – this review of his book by Edward Glaeser is written with a velvet glove but packs an iron fist.

So it’s not surprising I’m unimpressed by Commuting is very bad for you, written by Florida for last month’s issue of The Atlantic. He gets it completely wrong and provides a lesson in the dangers of only seeing what you want to see.

Florida seizes on a survey of 173,581 working Americans which he claims shows that those with longer commutes suffer higher levels of back pain, higher cholesterol and higher obesity. It also shows, he says, that commuting takes a toll on emotional health and happiness – those who commute more worry more, experience less enjoyment and feel less well-rested.

Commuting by car is so bad it’s up there with smoking:

“commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. 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”.

The trouble is the data he cites doesn’t support these conclusions. A proper reading of the two tables from his article (I’ve reproduced them above) indicates there’s very little relationship between commute time and health. Read the rest of this entry »