The Commuting Paradox

According to a paper by the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, a person with a one-hour car commute must earn 40 percent more money to have a sense of well-being equal to someone who walks (or rides their bike) to work. Fey and Stutzer say that people underestimate the down side of a long commute when choosing a home, and that psychologically, a long commute often negates the benefits gained by living in the suburbs.

From the paper Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox:

“People spend a lot of time commuting and often find it a burden. According to economics, the burden of commuting is chosen when compensated either on the labor or on the housing market so that individuals’ utility is equalized. However, in a direct test of this strong notion of equilibrium, we find that people with longer commuting time report systematically lower subjective well-being. Additional empirical analyses do not find institutional explanations of the empirical results that commuters systematically incur losses. We discuss several possibilities of an extended model of human behavior able to explain this ‘commuting paradox’.”

While my experiences commuting by car are certainly in agreement with the Frey and Stutzer study, I believe in some circumstances it’s possible to have your commuting cake and eat it too. My 60-mile round-trip commute through the city — a commute that most would consider torturous by car — is a good example. By combining a bike ride, a train ride, and a walk, I manage to live in the suburbs while avoiding the stress of a long freeway commute in heavy traffic. Plus, I gain the benefits of exercise and a significant amount of personal time everyday, both of which were previously difficult to fit into my busy schedule.

I think the take away here is that getting out of your car is a very important aspect of living more peacefully. Whether you live close enough to walk or ride your bike to work, or if you are able to combine a bike ride with a bus or train ride to cover a longer distance, eliminating the stress that is part-and-parcel of commuting by car will very likely make you a happier person.

Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox
[via Seed Magazine]

32 Responses to “The Commuting Paradox”

  • Brent says:

    When I was quite young, my parents would sometimes go for a “drive in the country” and take us kids along. My parents drove because they enjoyed it. As it happens, I know very few people who do this anymore (no one, actually), although I have one friend who visits a local racetrack on weekends to drive around at high speeds.

    There must be a thousand reasons that driving has become disagreeable, and that we view it as a necessity rather than a pleasure. One of them has to be traffic. Traffic removes the freedom that my parents’ drive in the country had. It forces us to drive in a regimented way. If people enjoyed their car commutes in the way that my parents enjoyed their drives, then this study could well report very different results. People would enjoy their commutes in the way that you enjoy your bicycle ride to work.

    I have spent too many disagreeable hours on the beach bicycle path here in L.A. to think that the bicycle will ultimately make commuting enjoyable. Swerving around slower cyclists, walkers, children, etc. has frustrations comparable to those of car driving. If bicycle commuting traffic also existed, I think similar problems and patterns would emerge. And, as such, although I love my bicycle, I think the best solution to commuting is to move closer to work. These days my “commute” is a fifteen minute walk. It happens to be a pleasure.

  • jdmitch says:

    My wife can testify, I’m in a much better mood when I get home after riding to work rather than driving. Even if there was bad drivers.

  • brad says:

    It’s not just commuting: I notice a difference even with local errands and shopping. My bike needs a new front wheel (making wheels is beyond my expertise) and it’s going to take a week or two before I have time to take it to the shop (it’s under warranty and the shop that made this bike is a 2-hour roundtrip car drive away). So I’m having to drive everywhere that I’m used to biking to, and it’s definitely affecting my stress levels.

    On the other hand, driving home from the market just now I stopped to let another car cross the street in front of me and the driver turned out to be a gorgeous young woman who gave me a huge smile and blew me a kiss in thanks as she drove by. Maybe driving’s not so stressful after all…

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Being my usual argumentative self when it comes to these discussions, I have to agree with Brent. I suspect that in large part, what people find frustrating about the car commute is the feeling of being trapped in traffic conditions; of feeling oneself to be a cog in a machine. When I look at some of the images of cyclists commuting in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and several Chinese cities, I get the same sensation: I feel claustrophobic just imagining being in the middle of those cycle paths, with those masses of people pedaling close together in a tight procession of limbs and steel.

    What I love about cycling is the feeling of flying, of freedom, of openness to possibility. Your photo at the top of this post illustrates these feelings very nicely. But being part of the commuting masses — whether in a car or on a bicycle — feels quite different.Just look at the facial expressions of the cyclists photographed in Amsterdam and Copenhagen: they look as preoccupied and worn out as car commuters. I think that the more people we have commuting on bikes and the more normalised this process becomes, the more the emphasis of the experience will shift from “bikes” to “commuting”.

    What am I trying to say here, that we shouldn’t cycle to work? Not at all; I hate driving and prefer the freedom of mobility and the feeling of fresh air against my skin and hair that I get on my bicycle. I just want to caution against imagining cycling culture as some sort of path to paradise where stress will disappear. Denmark has higher suicide rates than the US.

  • Molnar says:

    Brent, I haven’t been on an L.A. (or Santa Monica) beach bicycle path in about 35 years, but I don’t see that path as an approximation of bicycle commuting. It exists for recreation, so you have to expect the things you have xperienced.

    Lovely Bicycle!: All of the Scandinavian countries have had very high suicide rates for a long time. It is no more related to cycling than the high murder rate in the U.S. is related to the low level of cycling. Which you know perfectly well, of course.

  • charles says:

    What if your bicycle commute is 1.5 hours one way? I find bicycle commuting to be stressful especially in the traffic I ride with. Once I am out of the city it isn’t bad but its not really relaxing. If I want to relax, I ride in the country where I live but only when the traffic out here is light. If I truly want to relax, I sit down and relax, usually with a beer, glass of wine or some decent reading material. Lets face it, cycling is better than driving most of the time but cycling for transportation purposes has its own drawbacks. Regardless, I would not trade where I live with somewhere closer to my work opportunities. Deer nibbling on vegetation in the early morning light is quite serene and that beats noisy neighbors, traffic, sirens, smog and traffic congestion.

  • Alan says:

    @Charles

    How about doing your own version of “Park N’ Ride”? Drive halfway, park your car, then ride the bike in the rest of the way. Cuts your fuel expenses and carbon footprint in half, and cuts the bike leg of your commute down to a manageable length. I know a few people who do this. Folding bikes are prefect for this sort of commute. There are often ways to make it work if we have the desire and get creative.

  • jamesmallon says:

    The psychological benefit may be as simple as getting the exercise and the time in the sun that the human body requires, that most N. American adults are not otherwise going to get.

    There is also a real reduction in financial stress, if you do not also own a car. Very roughly calculated, but bear with me: if the average American spends $7K/yr on a car costs, which might require $12K before taxes, if every household has 1.5 cars and makes $45K/yr, they spend 40% of their income on car ownership! It’s crazy, but didn’t 40% come up already?

    “A person with a one-hour car commute must earn 40 percent more money to have a sense of well-being equal to someone who walks (or rides their bike) to work”

  • Alan says:

    @Lovely Bicycle

    “Just look at the facial expressions of the cyclists photographed in Amsterdam and Copenhagen: they look as preoccupied and worn out as car commuters.”

    I guess I don’t see that. If anything, they look wonderfully free and healthy to me. Maybe we’re each projecting our own ideas onto the photos? I wonder, do they experience road rage between bicyclists like we do among motorists here in the U.S.?

    “I just want to caution against imagining cycling culture as some sort of path to paradise where stress will disappear.”

    I’m not saying commuting by bicycle will eliminate all the stress in one’s life (if only that were true!), only the stress associated with a car commute. From the OP:

    “Whether you live close enough to walk or ride your bike to work, or if you are able to combine a bike ride with a bus or train ride to cover a longer distance, eliminating the stress that is part-and-parcel of commuting by car will very likely make you a happier person.”

    The operative word is “happier”, not to be confused with “happy”. The Fey and Stutzer study supports the idea.

    One thing I can say for sure is that eliminating a car from our lives has been one of the best decisions we ever made. That decision has affected our lives in positive ways we never could’ve imagined.

    Thanks for posting – enjoying the discussion… :-)

    Alan

  • Dottie says:

    I agree that improving your work commute is one of the best ways to improve your daily life. Getting out of the car is a big step, but public transportation can be stressful, too. I know that if I had to ride the EL train every day (Chicago’s version of the subway) as I did my first year here, my level of satisfaction with city living would be drastically lower than it is cycling every day on a lake path. There is definitely something special about riding a bike in the fresh air!

  • Nicolas says:

    Yes, it is possible to promote commuting by bike or train for people who live in suburbs, but realistically, when distances are long, when you have to take your children at school, it is impossible to wish these alternative way of commuting for the majority (and, by the way, to hope less oil consuming). The major fact with suburbs is that the density of housing is not enough and does not allow a good irrigation of public transportation (it would be too expensive). The best thing to do now is to allow people to reach the next bus stop from their house in good security conditions.
    Some (and only a few) European towns found the right compromise between density and quality of life.

  • amsterdamize says:

    “I feel claustrophobic just imagining being in the middle of those cycle paths, with those masses of people pedaling close together in a tight procession of limbs and steel.”

    I think you should consider a visit in the near future, because it’s the absolute opposite sensation, Lovely Bicycle.

  • fitnessbikes says:

    Yeah I do agree with this thought of combining walk, bike, car and travel by bus, train etc. But it’s better if we bring out some time for ourselves along with our daily routine in this way.

  • EdL says:

    Like Dottie, I live in Chicago and now commute by bike where before my commute was on the El train. I made my major switch to predominate bicycle commuting when the El line that I regularly rode to work was undergoing major construction, thus causing many extended, and unpredictable, delays. It was definitely an adjustment, learning all the ins, outs, and tricks to bike commuting, but having done it for about a year and a half now I fee like I am becoming an expert. Oddly, when I first moved to the city I loved riding the El, but now I find that when I do go by train rather than by bike, I am frustrated and impatient. My commute take approximately the same amount of time in either mode, but the ride feels more efficient to me somehow than the train. Part of that I think is just feeling more in control – I leave the house when I want, no waiting for buses or trains. And I will take the crowded Lakefront trail (pedestrians and beach bunnies and all) any day over a crowded El car on a Chicago summer day.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    amsterdamize — I have been in Amsterdam several times, though pre- my cycling days. It is a wonderful city.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    A lot of voices in the choir here, of course. I have a long, bi-modal commute: My usual routine is to ride the 2.5 mi. to the bus and ride it to the campus where I teach, about 45 mi. away, and reverse for coming home. About once a week, I ride down the full distance and take the bus back. I HATE it when I have to drive for shopping reasons or whatever. It’s stressful, tiring, the whole sick sack of commuting maladies. Switching to bike/bus/bike for my rounds has positively improved my life–even if I have to sit on the floor of the bus once and a while because so many are using it! That is still preferable to driving.

    Scott

  • Trisha says:

    Not a whole lot more substance to add here after such great comments, but personally being able to ride my bike to work has been a huge help in managing stress. I have ridden on busier streets and crowded paths, and while I definitely prefer Nashville’s calmer traffic pattern, I still think the bike is more relaxing than a car under any circumstances. Unless it’s raining!

  • Daniel says:

    Great read you guys.
    After bicycle commuting for a few years I realized how important it was for me. Later, I was fortunate enough to move to a city with a great bike path and made it my priority to live close to it. Lots of determination, planning and support goes into my commute to make it as enjoyalbe as possible for me and my family. I couldn’t have done it without my family’s understading.

  • donald stewart says:

    In my early years as a cycle commuter I rarely saw others but when I did there was always a wave or a heads up and often a greeting or a bit of banter. Gradually as the number of commuters grew the number who initiated such interchanges diminished and now few will even respond to such. Women are definitely more likely to than men but I would estimate that only about 1 in 20 respond and less than 1 in 40 initiate. Obviously different strokes for different folks but one of the things I liked about riding was that camaraderie. We have a two way cycle commute trail so we are almost eyeball to eyeball but few even acknowledge each others existence.

    Absolutely no question with all is hazards and inconveniences the bike ride is a huge stress reliever and much savoured and appreciated chunk of personal time even if it’s raining which here in the Pacific Northwets it does do from time to time. The one place I found it impractical to ride is my piano lesson. I find I can’t play worth bprrrpt for about 30 mins. after I finish a ride even if I take it really easy (on the ride)which I find it very hard to do.

    too much adreniline? too much heavy breathing? I don’t know. It lasts long after I get my breath back which even after a vigorous ride takes only a couple of minutes.

    donald

  • Alan says:

    @donald stewart

    “too much adreniline? too much heavy breathing? I don’t know.”

    Cold tendons, perhaps?

  • charles says:

    Alan,

    I do a partial commute now of 10 miles RT but I sometimes ride the 20 miles home when my wife works later. Right now I am suffering from sciatic nerve problems (probably from hitting bumps on the road) and have not been commuting as I want to and this makes me cranky. I’m all for about a 20 mile commute round trip maximum but any more wears on me and affects my work negatively. Then of course there is the nasty Washington state weather the other six months of the year. I just think cycling to be grand but not practical for everyone. I certainly can’t see my wife bicycle commuting or a mother of three young school age children for instance.

  • jdmitch says:

    Charles,

    I don’t want to pry, but I hate hearing that someones biking habits are causing them back pain (I’m relatively young and have some pretty bad lower back problems). What kind of bike are you riding? Have you considered going to lower pressure fatter tires? Big Apples are a dream to ride and might be what you need, if bump are really the issue.

  • Mary says:

    Just my two cents: I commute 10 miles to work in Manhattan every day from Brooklyn. My commute is truly the best part of my entire day. Even when I’m feeling tired in the morning and debate taking the subway, within five minutes of being on my bike I’m happy that I’m not stuck on a train. The subway actually takes at least the same amount of time, about an hour door-to-door. And sometimes, depending on the weather and ‘sick passengers’ it can take longer. Fortunately, my morning route begins in a park nearby and I’m able to take the greenway once I get into the city. Mornings are pretty easy. The afternoons get more sticky with tourists on the bridge, cyclists whizzing by me without any warning, children weaving around on their razors… it’s a familiar scene I’m sure. It gets stressful at times but it’s so much better than being squeezed on a packed train.

    As for the mention above about cycling camaraderie, my experience in nyc is that most commuters seem to have tunnel vision. However, I’ve actually made some friends while cycling to work and met some really interesting people while waiting at some really long lights.

    I know that it’s not realistic for everyone to bike to work but I wish it was. I get so much joy out of it and it saves me money since I don’t need a metro card or a gym membership.

  • charles says:

    Jdmitch,
    I am riding several different ones. Everything from a deraileurless two speed to a recumbent. My main ride is a Surly Long Haul Trucker now with a wide leather sprung saddle and Albatross bars mounted level with the saddle. I ride 35mm wide tires on that but had 42mm wide tires on it in the winter. I may have a piriformis muscle with a trapped sciatic nerve or I may have a puffed out disc. not sure yet. Regardless, I haven’t been able to sit comfortably and my job requires that. I ceased riding due to discomfort and pain. It sucks.

  • jdmitch says:

    Charles,

    Wow, that definitely sucks. With wider tires than most and recumbents you’re, obviously, taking out a lot of the “riding too rough of a bike” variables, so it’s not just vibration or over-harsh ride. I’m really sorry to hear it’s that bad for you. I hope whatever treatment / therapy you pursue works, because that would drive me, literally, crazy.

    Personally, I hate needless and cutting (and drugs, most of the time) and have lucked upon a great Chiropractor in my neighborhood. But, that doesn’t always work for everyone.

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  • alex4point0 says:

    Coming in a little late to the discussion here, following a link from a 3CR podcast. For me there is another commuting paradox — in that only in cycle commuting can adversity shared with others have a positive psychological effect.

    The obvious adverse experience in motor vehicle commuting is being stuck in traffic, or having to endure slow-moving traffic. It never brings you ‘closer’ to your fellow motorist, especially if they start leaning on their horns. If someone’s had a breakdown, or an accident, and it’s slowed traffic while everyone rubbernecks, they’re clearly the cause of the problem, and rarely sympathised with. Roadside memorials are hardly given due reverence by motorists that speed past.

    ( Of course, cyclists love gridlock! It represents a much lesser chance of being struck and killed by someone sending a text message, although if they decide to abandon their cars en masse, as in the filmclip to REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, there is an increased chance of being doored. )

    Being ‘forced’ to catch a train that is already full of people, (in Melbourne’s case, because privately-owned train operators decided that the most ‘efficient’ train is one that’s completely packed with passengers), is another adverse commute, especially if the people nearest you have bad BO, are drunk, have their iPod up too loud, are trying to read a broadsheet newspaper, are talking too loudly, &c. The only thing that you sneak a smile about with another commuter in this situation is seeing someone else suffer more, schadenfreude. I doubt it would be possible to conduct a ‘happinomics project’, mentioned in Adbusters recently, on Melbourne’s peak-hour trains. ( https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/84/happinomics.html )

    But shared adversity while cycling is completely different. I experienced this once on a rainy, windy climb up a city street in Melbourne, drawing alongside another cyclist heading in the same direction. ‘A walk in the park!’ he said, grinning. ‘Wouldn’t miss it for quids’, I replied. Now whether this was just blokey machismo I don’t know, but this shared experience sealed it for me, and if there was a tram full of people rolling up Elizabeth St nex to us, we would have agreed that ‘they don’t know what they’re missing’.

  • donald stewart says:

    One of the things I love about this blog is that late comers are welcome. We probably don’t get read by as many people but the conversation is open ended. So here comes Alex with a great post two and a half weeks after the original flurry and it pops up on my machine because I ticked the “keep me posted” box and even if it is just Alex and me which I’m sure it isn’t the conversation keeps on keeping on. Brilliant!! Thanks again Allan

    My son recently spent a year in Melbourne which added another little piquancy but it delights me that people from different parts of the world are just putting their two bits worth in and enjoying this cooperative effort. You can tell I’m new to blogging eh? I hope I can maintain this newbie excitement.

    donlad sic

    it just pops out that way from time to time

  • Alan says:

    @Alex

    Well said!

    @Donald

    Thanks for the kind words and enthusiasm!

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