Posted Apr 25th 2012 5:00PM
Does anyone actually like commuting?
No, in general we all agree that commuting is the pits. So it's not much of a surprise when we come across an infographic like this one, called "Killer Commute" by the fine folks at collegeathome.com, that enumerates the many ways commuting sucks the life right out of us. It confirms, with charts made out of things like frowny faces, that commuting will either kill you or make you wish you were dead. It makes you sad, mad, anxious, sick, fat, and lonely. This we all know. Right?
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Wait a second. Really? Commuting causes you to have fewer social connections? It causes you to get divorced? It causes you to have a fatal heart attack? Actually that last one does make intuitive sense. You've always smugly thought how that guy screaming at you to turn on red will die of a heart attack in his car someday, and then he'll be sorry.
But other than that, many of these claims bring to mind that one, solitary fact you remember from stats 101: Correlation doesn't mean causation. That is, you may find, as one of the cited studies did, that people with commutes over 40 minutes are statistically likelier to get divorced. That does not mean that commuting caused them to divorce (and the original authors of the study never said it did). It's much more likely that both the commute and the divorce have common originating factors. One possibility is that people with long commutes almost certainly had fewer employment options, given that they chose one far from their home, and this could indicate financial stresses, stresses brought on by having a job you don't like, or many others. Another is that a long commute sometimes correlates with placing more emphasis on career than family, a notorious romance-killer.
Other claims cited in "Killer Commute" seem similarly shaky. Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame, no stranger to the blurry lines between correlation and causation, says that "every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections." Now Bob, does it really? Well, no. Longer commutes correlate strongly with fewer social connections (as defined by Putnam, who focused on things like membership in formal organizations). However, (a) longer commutes are likely associated with more overall time spent on career and less on the Lions' Club, and (b) Bob is including all commuting, not just driving, so what the heck are we talking about here?
Another claim comes from a Gallup poll finding that among people who spend more than 90 minutes getting home from work, 40 per cent "experienced worry for much of the previous day." Again, let's think about who, on the whole, is likely to commute 90 minutes each way. People with little choice about their job - so they're likely to have financial stress or stress from hating their job or both. Or people who make the tradeoff because the job is high in status, power, money, or all three - so they're very likely to have job-pressure stress. (Alternatively, they're worrying about what their spouse was doing while they were doing all that commuting, and why the gardener/decorator/pool-attendant/helipad technician needs to visit quite so often.)
But - and you knew there would be a "but" - that question of the tradeoff is a reminder that these points about the awfulness of commuting did seem intuitively spot-on. Okay, it's awful - but perhaps at least some of us are making the tradeoff we want to make. Presumably, being the rational, clear-eyed, fully-informed, self-interested beings that economists say we are, we wouldn't do all this commuting if we weren't compensated in some way for it. If it weren't worth it, we'd just make some other choice. Right?
In a word, no. In a now-famous study called "Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox," a couple of Swiss economists looked at every aspect of commuting and work life they could come up with. First, they measured just how miserable commuting makes people. (Not to get too technical, but: quite miserable.) Then they measured every conceivable tradeoff that could justify incurring this misery: money, status, real estate (because people often commute in order to live where they want to live), overall satisfaction with life, the well-being of one's spouse and family. None of these, they found, came close to justifying the time spent commuting by miserable commuters. The economists estimated that if an increase in income were to justify it, every additional hour of commuting would have to be accompanied by a 40 per cent increase in income.
There's a significant oversight in that study, however. It didn't seem to factor if commuting misery varies according to what kind of car the commuter drives. Obviously someone driving an Audi for 90 minutes is going to feel a heck of a lot better about it than someone driving a? hmm, this could get sticky, don't want to insult anyone's car... let's say an ice cream truck. Didn't think of that, did you, smartypants economists?
As it happens, some other smartypants economists did some figuring with just that factor in mind. The painfully titled "Why Don't We Learn From Poor Choices?" (gulp... Mom, Dad, when did you become economists?) showed that luxury cars do make you happier, but - and get this - only when you're thinking about the fact that you own a luxury car. The question "How did you feel during your commute?" elicits completely different responses than "How did you feel commuting in your BMW?" And drivers of luxury cars answer the first question no differently than drivers of economy cars.
This is probably due partly to the phenomenon of sunk costs, as in "I love my car! (why else did I pay $100-grand for it?!)" But it's also due to the sad fact that humans, being the sad creatures we are, just don't think realistically about what's going to make us happy. We don't accurately assess the costs of our choices. In particular - oddly enough for such self-delighted, egotistical beings - we tend to discount the value of our own time. In thinking about whatever it is we'll get in return for that commute, we inflate how happy it will make us to live in a particular house in a particular place or to have a particular job with a particular salary. And we brush off the effect upon our happiness of spending that much of our time commuting.
So this is what it comes down to. There's a reason these statistics, regardless of how dubiously some of them are used, sound intuitively right. Drive-commuting (as opposed to bus- or train- commuting) does take a real toll. Navigating stop-and-go traffic, sitting in uncomfortable positions, absorbing the toxic output not just of cars physically and their angry, aggressive drivers emotionally - all of this has a cost. Not that we should immediately stop commuting, but surely we should try to include it as a cost.
Maybe you're like those aforementioned freaks, whistling on your way to work. But if not, try this test. Imagine you're interviewing for a job, and it sounds pretty good. But as you're wrapping up, the interviewer says, "Oh, one more thing. Every morning when you first get here, and every evening before you leave, you'll have to do 40 minutes of Crossfire-style debating/taking a timed math test/getting cranky children to eat peas/trying on bathing suits in front of a live audience/insert your own hateful task here." How does the job sound now? Still worth it?
No, it's not science. But it's a start. Also, try listening to "Hell Pit." Apparently it really does the trick.