14 April 2007

The Cost of Commuting

I've been a long-time reader of Mother Jones magazine and have recently taken-in their RSS feed(s). This caught my eye: a sort piece (blog blob?) aimed at outlining the environmental costs of commuting, with numerous references to a New Yorker piece by Nick Paumgarten, as well as the non-fiscal costs associated with commuting long, or in my personal case repulsive, distances. Here are some of the highlights:

"Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way. People travel between counties the way they used to travel between neighborhoods. The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl. They’re the talk-radio listeners, billboard glimpsers, gas guzzlers, and swing voters, and they don’t—can’t—watch the evening news. Some take on long commutes by choice, and some out of necessity, although the difference between one and the other can be hard to discern. A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth.

. . .

Americans, for all their bellyaching, are not the world’s most afflicted commuters. They average fifty-one minutes a day, to and from work. Pity the Romanians, who average fifty-four. Or the citizens of Bangkok, who average—average!—two hours. A business trip to Bangkok will buck up the glummest Van Wyck Expressway rubbernecker; the traffic there, as in so many automobile-plagued Asian mega-capitals, is apocalyptic. In Japan, land of the bullet train, workers spend almost ninety minutes a day.

. . .

Nationwide, the automobile took over from the train long ago. Nine out of ten people travel to work by car, and, of those, eighty-eight per cent drive alone. The car, and the sprawl that comes with it (each—familiar story—having helped to engender and entrench the other), ushers in another kind of experience. The gray-suited armies of Cheever’s 5:48 have given way to the business-casual soloists, whose loneliness is no longer merely existential. They hardly even have the opportunity to feel estranged at home, their time there is so brief.

. . .

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

. . .

Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman, relying on equations like U=α+ßD+ßD²+γX+δw+δw²log y.) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated."

The Washington Post has a piece by Eric M. Weiss that addresses the health problems of commuters:

"Besides being a daily grind that takes time away from family, a long commute can be harmful to your health. Researchers have found that hours spent behind the wheel raise blood pressure and cause workers to get sick and stay home more often. Commuters have lower thresholds for frustration at work, suffer more headaches and chest pains, and more often display negative moods at home in the evenings. It's not just the drivers who suffer. Carpool passengers have to deal with what they call 'Mustang neck' or 'Beetle neck' -- the contortions they must make to wedge themselves into the back seats of certain cars.

. . .

As a consequence, more drivers will probably suffer the health effects of a commuter lifestyle, researchers and doctors said. 'You tell someone they need to exercise or go to physical therapy, but how can they? They leave at 5 a.m. and get home at 7 or 8 p.m. at night,' said Robert G. Squillante, an orthopedic surgeon in Fredericksburg who has treated patients for back pain and other commuting-related issues.

He said constant road vibrations and sitting in the same position for a long time is bad for the neck and spine and puts special pressure on the bottom disc in the lower back, the one most likely to deteriorate over the years.

There are other long-term concerns. Raymond W. Novaco, a professor at the University of California at Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies who has researched commuting for three decades, found a correlation between traffic congestion and negative health effects such as higher blood pressure and stress.

Novaco's research team measures the blood pressure and heart rate of commuters shortly after they arrive at work and again two hours later. Commuters also fill out detailed questionnaires on their home and work lives. 'The longer the commute, the more illness' and more illness-related work absences occur, he said.

. . .

Spending hours sitting in your car can also cause back and other muscle problems and takes time away from more active, healthier pursuits such as walking or going to the gym. The ill effects of commuting are increasingly showing up in local doctors' offices. Squillante, the Fredericksburg orthopedic surgeon, said he has had surgery patients say that the best thing about a back operation was the forced hiatus from their daily commute during recovery."

There is a single take-away from all of this: commuting is both a personal as well as a public health issue. The opportunity costs associated with commuting are often extremely disproportionate. There is a real, measurable drain on those suffering through long commutes. Long commutes break people down.

On a slightly more up-beat note, I read a great piece this past weekend in Wired by Douglas McGray regarding a "pop-up city" initiative in China that looks extremely promising.

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