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COVID Killed the Commute for Many of Us

... and that might not be a good thing.

Key points

  • Workers have commuted roughly 30 minutes each way, for hundreds of years.
  • Remote work has cost people the commute, an important time for the brain to rest and reset.
  • Individuals can (and should) reinstate a commute, even if they’re no longer traveling to work.

The phenomenon of a work commute is ancient. Literally—Roman workers walked an average of 30 minutes each way to work. And that 30-minute commute has proven not to be arbitrary; 2000 years later, the average journey in 2019 was still around 30 minutes.

In fact, metropolitan areas have expanded by roughly the physical area that one can commute in 30 minutes by whatever the common transport system is. For instance, the greater London area expanded during the 18th century from the original City of London (about a 30-minute walk on foot) to as far as a carriage could carry you in a half-hour. And today, many popular London neighborhoods are within a 30-minute Tube ride of the city center.

But the 30 minutes are clearly not a physical limit—walking 30 minutes is more taxing than a 30-minute ride. More likely, there’s an intrinsic psychological value of the commute, and its advantages are realized in about half an hour. We need this much time to mentally transition from home to work, and then from work to home again.

Four reasons why you need your commute back

We probably underestimated the value of the commute. (Yes, really.) Here’s why you need it back:

  1. Your commute might be gone forever, but your need for it remains. While many commuters no doubt were thrilled with the time gained back by working from home, that enthusiasm was offset by changes that killed the commute in the first place. We used that commute time to read more news about the pandemic, to master Zoom and Slack, or balance other COVID-based demands like children learning remotely. Now, the newness of working from home has faded; we are in our new normal. Since we ended the commute during a crisis, and it is becoming permanent without any transition, we may not have noticed the cost of that lost time.
  2. The commute is about more than geography. A commute served the same primary purpose in Ancient Rome as it does in present-day Atlanta—it gets the worker from home to the workplace and back again. But the commute is not just a physical journey; it’s a mental one. The commute in the morning gives us space and time to realign our behavior—we shift out of the role of parent or partner or roommate, to waiter or lawyer or nurse. That involves everything from a shift in attitude, to a change in our tone. We shelve domestic concerns and begin mentally preparing for work-based activities. We do the same thing on the way home, shutting down our focus on professional goals and preparing for personal objectives, whether it’s making a grocery list or planning our Netflix night. The physical experience of moving from one arena to another also signaled to our brains that we were transitioning from one environment to another, literally and mentally. As we decreased our physical proximity to the space, so did our psychological attachment to it. These days, it’s important to set up a physical work-from-home space that we can walk away from, or shut down each night, to reinvent the visual cues that tell us it’s time to mentally commute away from one stage of the day to another.
  3. You need to stop paying attention. Science has documented that the human brain needs to daydream—undergoing what has been called the default mode network (DMN), a complex series of communications between unrelated parts of the brain. According to an article in Scientific American, “ … the brain may take advantage of every momentary lapse in attention to let resting state networks take over … what the DMN accomplishes in these interludes remains unclear, but it could very well be a form of memory consolidation or a moment for attention-directing neurons to catch their breath.” In other words, our mind needs to wander, and the commute is an excellent time to think about… nothing. If you use an underground subway and are unable to access wi-fi, or if you drive and must stop reading email, the commute serves as a short, forced disconnection from the constant stimulation of a digital world. It’s important to reintroduce a similar break, whether it’s a walk with your phone in Airplane mode or a short drive around the neighborhood.
  4. Lost in transportation? Get back what you did while you commuted. The value of the commute is also realized through the more conscious way we use it. Some people listen to news radio, a podcast, or an audiobook. Some use the time to learn a new language or listen to music. Those activities serve as self-care—soothing, distracting, or entertaining ourselves are daily de-stressors. Whether we’re learning a new hobby or striving for Genius on The New York Times Spelling Bee, we are likely doing the kinds of things we might not make time for otherwise. It might seem perfectly benign to abandon these superfluous activities, but the focus on self, and the indulgences of these outlets, serve a real purpose for our mental health.

The value of the commute is the kind of thing you only miss once it’s gone.

At 30 minutes each way, 5 days per week, we have lost more than 250 hours of commute time per year. And it’s not just the sheer volume of time that has been lost. That journey wasn’t just from here to there, but from one kind of self to another, and back again. The commute has changed, but the human brain hasn’t. You don’t have to love rush hour traffic, but every once in a while, it could be good for you.