How does commuting affect our well-being?

This article was published in 2012, in Newsletter 102.

As policy makers around the world come to terms with the inadequacies of using gross domestic product as the sole way to measure social progress, the idea of using trends in self-reported well-being has started to take off. David Cameron is particularly keen on this idea, having taken the decision to include four questions on well-being in the National Household Survey, conducted by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) several times per year. The ONS data means that, for the first time, we will be able to see how self-reported well-being changes over time across the UK, and how it is linked with numerous demographic factors.

But will all this new information serve any useful purpose? I recently completed a Masters in Environmental Policy here in Cambridge, in the Department of Land Economy. For my research project I wanted to look at how this new research on well-being could impact on one particular policy area – transport.

In 2006 acclaimed economists Kahneman and Krueger* surveyed 909 working women in Texas and found that commuting was on average the least happy time of their day. Reading the paper, I immediately thought of my last regular commute – I had lived in Romsey and worked in offices near the railway line on Newmarket Road. My daily commute had been a ten-minute cycle through back streets and over Coldham’s Common. The suggestion that this was somehow the least happy part of my day was laughable.

I wanted to look further into this issue of commuting and well-being, and find out whether there were any key factors that affected how much people enjoyed their journeys to work. If commuting really is the least happy time in our day – what can be done to make it better?

Views on commuting

I set up an online survey which was filled in by around 500 people during May 2011. The survey asked participants to think only about the previous day. Various questions were asked about their commute, such as the time taken, mode of transport, and landscape travelled through. Participants were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with their commute, as well as how strongly they felt a range of emotions whilst travelling. These included things like ‘impatient for it to end’; ‘hassled/pushed around’ and ‘enjoying myself’.

Participants’ ratings (from 1 to 10) of their commute satisfaction are lower when their total travel time is longer.
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My survey uncovered several things of interest to transport policy makers. Firstly, the length of time a commute takes was strongly correlated with satisfaction with commute, and well-being whilst commuting.

The results clearly imply that shorter commutes make for higher satisfaction levels and higher levels of well-being whilst travelling.

The next big thing to influence commute satisfaction is transport mode. People who travel to work on foot or by bicycle are much more likely to be satisfied with their commute, and find it a positive experience.

One area where cycling fared particularly well was in the emotion ‘enjoying myself’. Cyclists enjoyed their journeys significantly more than commuters using any other transport type, including those who walked.

What to learn from this research? The message that cycling is the most enjoyable form of transport is something that as keen cyclists we all know, but worth highlighting to policy makers who might be less easily convinced. The results on commuting time are also important. The growing trend for people to commute longer and longer distances to work is dangerous for our well-being. The government should focus on policies that will reduce commuting times, such as increasing employment opportunities outside the main cities, increasing the amount of affordable housing available close to centres of work, and encouraging more home working. Each of these policies could have a big impact on commute satisfaction. Clearly, making it easier for people to cycle and walk to work is also crucial. The Times Cities Fit for Cycling campaign seems to have created some real enthusiasm for action on cycling in Westminster – we can only hope this momentum continues, and spreads to other cities around the UK.

In the UK we spend about 150 hours per year commuting. Transport policy is generally dictated by economic demands (with the odd nod to environmental concerns). Perhaps it is time the government looked more closely at how they can build a transport network that puts commuter satisfaction and well-being first. The brilliant thing that this research has shown is that what is best for our well-being – cycling and walking – is best for the planet, too.

Sarah Whitebread

*Daniel Kahneman & Alan B. Krueger, 2006. “Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 20(1), pages 3-24, Winter.