Your Commute Is Killing You
Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia.
This week, researchers at Umea University in Sweden released a startling finding: Couples in which one partner commutes for longer than 45 minutes are 40 percent likelier to divorce. The Swedes could not say why. Perhaps long-distance commuters tend to be poorer or less educated, both conditions that make divorce more common. Perhaps long transit times exacerbate corrosive marital inequalities, with one partner overburdened by child care and the other overburdened by work. But perhaps the Swedes are just telling us something we all already know, which is that commuting is bad for you. Awful, in fact.
Commuting is a migraine-inducing life-suck—a mundane task about as pleasurable as assembling flat-pack furniture or getting your license renewed, and you have to do it every day. If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii). You are not doing any of the things that make human beings happy. Instead, you are getting nauseous on a bus, jostled on a train, or cut off in traffic.
In the past decade or so, researchers have produced a significant body of research measuring the dreadfulness of a long commute. People with long transit times suffer from disproportionate pain, stress, obesity, and dissatisfaction. The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income left over from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it.
First, the research proves the most obvious point: We dislike commuting itself, finding it unpleasant and stressful. In 2006, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Alan Krueger surveyed 900 Texan women, asking them how much they enjoyed a number of common activities. Having sex came in first. Socializing after work came second. Commuting came in dead last. "Commuting in the morning appears particularly unpleasant," the researchers noted.
That unpleasantness seems to have a spillover effect: making us less happy in general. A survey conducted last year for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, for instance,found that 40 percent of employees who spend more than 90 minutes getting home from work "experienced worry for much of the previous day." That number falls to 28 percent for those with "negligible" commutes of 10 minutes or less. Workers with very long commutes feel less rested and experience less "enjoyment," as well.
Long commutes also make us feel lonely. Robert Putnam, the famed Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone, names long commuting times as one of the most robust predictors of social isolation. He posits that every 10 minutes spent commuting results in 10 percent fewer "social connections." Those social connections tend to make us feel happy and fulfilled.
Those stressful hours spent listening to drive-time radio do not merely make us less happy. They also make us less healthy. The Gallup survey, for instance, found that one in three workers with a 90-minute daily commute has recurrent neck or back problems. Our behaviors change as well, conspiring to make us less fit: When we spend more time commuting, we spend less time exercising and fixing ourselves meals at home.
According to research from Thomas James Christian of Brown University, each minute you commute is associated with "a 0.0257 minute exercise time reduction, a 0.0387 minute food preparation time reduction, and a 0.2205 minute sleep time reduction." It does not sound like much, but it adds up. Long commutes also tend to increase the chance that a worker will make "non-grocery food purchases"—buying things like fast food—and will shift into "lower-intensity" exercise.
It is commuting, not the total length of the workday, that matters, he found. Take a worker with a negligible commute and a 12-hour workday and a worker with an hourlong commute and a 10-hour workday. The former will have healthier habits than the latter, even though total time spent on the relatively stressful, unpleasant tasks is equal.
Plus, overall, people with long commutes are fatter, and national increases in commuting time are posited as one contributor to the obesity epidemic. Researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles, and Cal State–Long Beach, for instance, looked at the relationship between obesity and a number of lifestyle factors, such as physical activity. Vehicle-miles traveled had a stronger correlation with obesity than any other factor.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.