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A New Look of Commuting in the United States

Researchers looked at commuting data from three years of the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) to see how stressful and meaningful these activities are.


By: Arthur Stone and Stefan Schneider

Most people would probably agree that commuting is a stressful experience, a necessary one, but one we’d rather avoid. We live in Los Angeles, California, where the traffic is notoriously horrible, and this commonly-held belief certainly rings true here. The photograph below shows a typical commute and traffic actually gets worse than this (when it is virtually at a halt).

But research shows that commonly-held beliefs are sometimes incorrect: for a number of reasons, things are not always as they seem. For example, spending time with one’s children is generally thought to be a pleasant activity and many happy memories may come to mind when thinking of one’s kids, but research has shown that childcare is less enjoyable in real life than our beliefs and memories suggest (see http://science.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1776 and http://www.nber.org/chapters/c5053). Is it possible that a similar effect holds true for commuting?

trafficThe prior scientific work on commuting has typically asked people how they experience commuting “in general” and from these surveys we learn that commuting is usually thought of as unpleasant. Commutes rank high in stressfulness and other negative feelings in the list of common daily activities (which include things like housework, cooking, grocery shopping, taking care of your children, your job, exercising, watching TV, and so forth). But perhaps our memories about the commuting experience are not entirely correct, and when asked about commuting we are only able to recall the worst episodes we have had commuting, and those recollections flavor our survey responses. It could be that when commuting is measured more objectively using shorter recall periods that it is actually found to be a less noxious experience than we currently believe.

We had an opportunity to address this question with data from a national survey called the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). Detailed information on the ATUS can be found here. What makes the ATUS special is that people are asked to recollect in great detail what they did the day prior to the telephone survey, and their memories should be quite fresh and hopefully relatively unfiltered. During the interview, respondents divide their previous day into as many episodes as is necessary to capture activities over all waking hours – usually about 20 episodes. The episodes are assigned codes by highly trained interviewers that describe the activities in great detail.

This is known as a time–use study and it provides government policy-makers and researchers with all sorts of interesting information about how people spend their time. We know how much time people spent at work or at play, for example, from the ATUS and are able to track how time-use changes, because the survey is conducted every couple of years.

A few years ago the National Institute on Aging funded a new section for the ATUS to provide information about the psychological states associated with daily activities.  So now we can understand not only how much time people spend doing things, but also how they feel when they are doing those activities.

So how do people really feel when they are commuting? We examined 37,088 respondents from three years of ATUS surveys and identified 17,409 episodes of commuting using definitions from the Department of Transportation’s National Household Transportation Survey. We should mention that defining an activity as “commuting” is not as straightforward as one might at first think: Driving straight from home to work is clearly a commuting episode, but what if one stops by a friend’s house first and then continues to drive to work? Should the first part of the trip still be considered as commuting or as a trip to a friend? Fortunately for us, the Department of Transportation has developed detailed rules that we could apply to the ATUS survey to identify commuting episodes. From the ATUS data, we see that on average, commuting episodes were 26.6 minutes in duration on the way to work and were slightly longer, 29.2 minutes, returning from work.

Compared to other daily activities, commuting episodes did indeed rank high in terms of stress, but for other mood ratings there was a substantial difference between work-bound and home-bound commutes. Going to work ranked the lowest of all activities that we looked at in terms of happiness, even though people said that they were not very tired. This likely reflects peoples’ anticipation of the upcoming day, as work (sadly) is one of the most unpleasant activities for many people.

On the other hand, happiness when returning home from work fell smack in the middle of the distribution of the various activities of the day, yet respondents were also very tired during these commutes home. Also of interest was that people thought that there was little meaning in commutes, even though the activity serves an important function of getting people to a place where they earn income. Work itself was considered quite meaningful (though not as meaningful as recreational or religious activities), whereas commuting in itself was not.

Interestingly, we did not find a strong association between the length of a commute and how stressful it was. Longer commutes were associated with higher levels of stress, but the relationship was quite weak.  Nevertheless, in view of the sizable amount of time many of us spend commuting on a regular basis, the total impact of commuting on  our mental well being and enjoyment of daily life can be sizeable.

This new research will soon be published in a journal specializing in transportation issues. We confirm that commuting is, indeed, stressful, but what we didn’t know is that returning home from work, though stressful, is not nearly as bad an experience as going to work. An open question is whether there is something about the morning commute itself (such as traffic conditions) that makes it so unpleasant, or whether people really just don’t look forward to going to work. Maybe how we feel about commuting is largely driven by where the road leads us.

And this certainly is consistent with our own experiences: looking forward to spending time with family and friends on the drive home lifts one’s mood.

This post was co-authored with Stefan Schneider, a behavioral scientist at the Center for Self-Report Science at the Dornsife College of Letters Arts and Sciences Center for Economic and Social Research.



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