Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia.

Commentary about business and finance.
May 26 2011 5:57 PM

Your Commute Is Killing You

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia.

Also in Slate, Tom Vanderbilt asks if Twitter and tweets about traffic will change the way we drive, and he looked at whether bus drivers might have the most stressful job on the planet.

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So, in summary: We hate commuting. It correlates with an increased risk of obesity, divorce, neck pain, stress, worry, and sleeplessness. It makes us eat worse and exercise less. Yet, we keep on doing it.

Indeed, average one-way commuting time has steadily crept up over the course of the past five decades, and now sits at 24 minutes (although we routinely under-report the time it really takes us to get to work). About one in six workers commutes for more than 45 minutes, each way. And about 3.5 million Americans commute a whopping 90 minutes each way—the so-called "extreme commuters," whose number has doubled since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. They collectively spend 164 billion minutes per year shuttling to and from work.

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Why do people suffer through it? The answer mostly lies in a phrase forced on us by real-estate agents: "Drive until you qualify." Many of us work in towns or cities where houses are expensive. The further we move from work, the more house we can afford. Given the choice between a cramped two-bedroom apartment 10 minutes from work and a spacious four-bedroom house 45 minutes from it, we often elect the latter.

For decades, economists have been warning us that when we buy at a distance, we do not tend to take the cost of our own time into account. All the way back in 1965, for instance, the economist John Kain wrote, it is "crucial that, in making longer journeys to work, households incur larger costs in both time and money. Since time is a scarce commodity, workers should demand some compensation for the time they spend in commuting." But we tend not to, only taking the tradeoff between housing costs and transportation costs into question.

How much would we need to be compensated to make up for the hellish experience of a long commute? Two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, actually went about quantifying it, in a now famous 2004 paper entitled "Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox." They found that for an extra hour of commuting time, you would need to be compensated with a massive 40 percent increase in salary to make it worthwhile.

But wait: Isn't the big house and the time to listen to the whole Dylan catalog worth something as well? Sure, researchers say, but not enough when it comes to the elusive metric of happiness. Given the choice between that cramped apartment and the big house, we focus on the tangible gains offered by the latter. We can see that extra bedroom. We want that extra bathtub. But we do not often use them. And we forget that additional time in the car is a constant, persistent, daily burden—if a relatively invisible one.

Do not take it lightly. People who say, "My commute is killing me!" are not exaggerators. They are realists.

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.