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Commuting: "The Stress That Doesn't Pay"

Commuting harms our psychological health and social lives.

Commuting has been found to be one of life’s least enjoyable activities and has been labeled “the stress that doesn’t pay.” Longer commutes are systematically associated with lower rates of well-being.

The average American spends 25.4 minutes commuting. New York has the longest average commute time (36 minutes), followed by Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta. Workers in metropolitan areas have the highest rates of “mega-commuting,” commutes of more than 90 minutes. San Francisco, New York, and Washington D.C. have the highest percentage of mega-commuters.

The Costs of Commuting

Commuting times have steadily increased in the U.S., and the rising problem of congestion has only exacerbated the issue of wasting time, money, and fuel. In 2011, congestion caused Americans to travel an extra 5.5 billion hours and purchase an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, leading to a $121 billion price tag to congestion (not to mention 56 billion pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere due to urban congestion). The annual delay for the average commuter has been steadily rising since the 1980s, more than doubling to 38 hours of delays in 2011 for the average commuter and wasting an extra week’s worth of fuel for the average U.S. driver. In urban areas with more than 3 million people, commuters had an average of 52 hours of delay a year.

Commuting also has significant psychological and social costs. It can be a major cause of stress, due to its unpredictability and a sense of loss of control. Commuters can experience boredom, social isolation, anger, and frustration from problems like traffic or delays.

One 2004 study found that in a sample of nearly a thousand employed women, commuting was the least satisfying activity of all types of daily activities, falling below housework and working, and generated feelings of impatience and fatigue. The ride to work is also associated with increased blood pressure, musculoskeletal problems, lower frustration tolerance, and higher levels of anxiety and hostility. It can cause bad moods when arriving at work and coming home, increased lateness and missed work, and impaired cognitive performance.

Commuting can also take time away from relationships. Over three-fourths of Americans drive alone to work. One study found that automobile commuting led to decreased available time with spouses, family, and friends. For men, a one-hour increase in commute time led to a 21.8-minute decrease in time spent with the spouse, an 18.6-minute decrease in time with children, and a 7.2-minute decrease in time with friends. For women, a one-hour increase in their commute led to an 11.9-minute decrease in time spent with friends. Public commuters have been found to be less vulnerable to these social costs of commuting compared to drivers.

An additional hour of commuting has also been linked to a 6 percent decrease in health-related activities, cutting into time for sleep, exercise, food preparation, and shared meals.

Gender Differences in Commuting

Studies since the 1980s have found that women have shorter commuting times than men. Theories for this included differences in employment opportunities between men and women, the accessibility of public transit, and gender roles at home. Women were found to have more limited access to cars for commuting compared to men, and thus had to rely on public transit. Researchers have also suggested women face balancing the demands of paid employment against household responsibilities (i.e., those who bear more responsibility in housework and child-rearing are less able able to spend time commuting).

In a 1993 study of New York and Toronto, women had shorter commuting times only in suburban areas. In urban regions, the mode of transportation had the biggest influence on commuting time, regardless of gender, income, or occupation. More recent studies have found that while men commute longer distances than women, women make more trips. Women make more short stops on the way to and from work (termed “trip chaining”), and are also more likely to make stops due to the needs of the passenger (e.g., dropping off a child at school or childcare). As a result, women who commute have less flexible time.

A study in Britain in 2011 found that commuting created more psychological stress for women compared to men, even after controlling for variables like income and job satisfaction. The negative stress of commuting was found to be the highest in women with preschool children compared to men with young children, or single men and women without children.

As we work towards gender equality in both the workplace and the home, these gender differences may dissolve. But the financial and psychological costs of commuting for both men and women remain.

The Benefits of Active Commuting

Commuting doesn’t have to be all bad news. Positive aspects of commuting can include being able to have alone time, reading, thinking, or taking time for oneself to unwind at the end of the day.

A study in 2014 found that psychological well-being, including the ability to concentrate and happiness, was higher for people commuting by active travel, like walking or public transport, compared to driving. Furthermore, switching from car driving to active travel resulted in improved well-being. Longer travel time for walkers actually improved well-being, whereas the opposite was true for drivers. In contrast, driving requires constant concentration and can result in increased boredom, social isolation, and stress.

There are also potential physical health benefits to active commuting, depending on your mode of transportation. Commuting by walking or cycling has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk by 11 percent — a protective effect that more significantly impacted women than men.

How can you make commuting work for you?

1. Battle the boredom.

Mindless commuting is a recipe for boredom, frustration, or simply lost time that you could otherwise be spending doing something enjoyable. Find an activity that is portable and easily integrated into your commute habits, whether it’s listening to music on the subway, enjoying podcasts or audiobooks in the car, or reading on the train.

2. Don’t fight the unpredictability.

Your blood pressure might skyrocket when you see the massive amounts of traffic due to unexpected construction, but fighting with the unpredictable nature of commuting wastes a lot of mental energy and focus. Whether the train line is down, or you get a flat tire, try not to fight with the details of your commute.

3. Acknowledge your lack of control in the situation.

Part of being a commuter is noticing that most of the time, you are not in control of certain factors of your environment — like when the train arrives, the weather, or the traffic congestion.

4. Envision the kind of day you want on your commute to work. Reflect and wind down on your commute home.

Your commute likely starts your day, so it’s an opportunity to take a regular period of time to envision the kind of day that you want to experience. Can you set your intention for the day? Is your hope that your day can be filled with productivity, efficiency, endurance, or skill? The commute home is an opportunity to reflect on whether you were able to experience the day with the intention that you set and gives you a chance to wind down.

5. Integrate active commuting, like walking or cycling, as much as possible.

Your commute might require a significant amount of driving or sitting, but if there is a way to include more walking or physical activity (even if it's just taking the stairs instead of the elevator), you can improve your physical condition and mental well-being.

This is part of a series of articles on the Urban Survival blog, examining how to manage the stress of city living.

Copyright Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC 2015


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