David Brooks, summarizing the current state of happiness research:

The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

In other words, the best way to make yourself happy is to have a short commute and get married. I'm afraid science can't tell us very much about marriage so let's talk about commuting. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer announced the discovery of a new human foible, which they called "the commuters paradox". They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.

Of course, as Brooks notes, that time in traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day.

Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."

But if commuting is so awful, then why are our commutes getting so much longer? (More than 3.5 million Americans spend more than three hours each day traveling to and from work.) In my book, I cite the speculative hypothesis of Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands, who argues that long-distance commuters are victims of a "weighting mistake," a classic decision-making error in which we lose sight of the important variables:

Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."

The same thing happens when we go car shopping. We tend to become fixated on quantifiable variables like horsepower (they're so easy to compare), while discounting factors, such as the cost of maintenance or the comfort of the seats, that will play a much more significant role in our satisfaction with the car over time. I'm always surprised when people brag about variables like torque or the speed with which the car can rocket from 0-60 mph. Who cares? I'd much rather spend 30 minutes testing out the front seat.

Update: Matthew Yglesias argues that the misery of commuting should lead to congestion pricing. I agree.

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By Brandon Hidaka (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

As someone who discovered fairly early on in life that there is tremendous power and wisdom in the mind that is present rather than thinking about the past or future or what you'd rather have happening in the moment, I actually look forward to driving short distances, long distances, with or without traffic, because it allows me an opportunity to be present with not much to do. Or it's a time to train further with my mind if it's a day when I have lots of mental chatter. Out of this mind that's just there experiencing what's coming in through one's sense perceptions (without reacting to them), one's mind will on occasion throw up various insights....creative solutions perhaps to questions I have posed and that my mind finally responds to, once I've cleared away the to-do lists and running commnetary of how am I doing. On rare occasions I might turn on NPR or listen to music but I find 'driving meditation' far more useful. This mindfulness-awareness meditation is also helpful for using your time waiting in line or at night when you can't sleep. Use the time to train your mind! May others find this useful.

By Judy Bond (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

The basis of this seems to be solely on house size (or appeal). When we bought our house, my job was only a 10 min drive away. Obviously very nice in regards to happiness and finances. Unfortunately, the company I worked for had a large layoff (over 500 employees) which made finding a new local job extremely difficult.

I found a new job some 80 miles away in a larger city that paid more and allowed us to keep our house. I've been driving 800 miles a week for over 4 yrs now, but I'd rather stay in our smaller town than move to a bigger city. Honestly it has nothing to do with my house in as much as I like the neighborhood in which we live, the school district my kids attend and the proximity of our house in the town we live.

Some of those super-commuters are my neighbors. I live in New Hampshire, ~100 km north of Boston. I have occasionally done that drive during rush hour, often enough to know that having that for a daily commute is not a fate I would wish on my worst enemy. Yet some of my neighbors do that drive every weekday. I don't see any signs that they are happy.

Bingo on identifying the unpredictability of traffic congestion as one of the big contributors. I can anticipate that certain spots will be problematic--most notoriously the 93/128 junction north of Boston, especially for 128 northbound which drops from four lanes to three at that point--but I never know in advance how bad it will be.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

As Deb points out, there's more to a house purchase than just distance from work. During the bubble, people were encouraged to want the big show house, with all the fixins, because money was cheap. People think about schools, nearness to family, friends, etc., other services/entertainment options they want--a whole host of things. Though my wife and I did recently choose to get a smaller house close to work rather than a larger house further away--she can walk, and I bike-commute. It is indeed far less stressful than driving or the subway.

I don't know about other cities but seems like for people with school aged children in Los Angeles, it's the quality of the schools, not the size of the house that's driving parents to make the sacrifice of 3-hour daily commutes.

Like Judy, above, I practice a bit of driving meditation. I'm a PhD student, and I walk to school; it takes about 25 minutes each way. But on weekends I drive around to various places outside of town, just to explore and see things and because I enjoy driving. It's my don't-have-to-think-about-hard-things time, and I find my stress levels are higher and my general happiness lower on weeks following weekends where I could not get away for a 2-hour drive.

But, the worst part of every drive is the sitting in traffic, start-stopping between red lights bit in town. It's the open road that allows some pleasure, dealing with other drivers is the less-fun part.

I also agree about the valuable features of cars. My car, which again I use almost entirely for fun, is old, cheap, and a bit nasty because I'm an impoverished graduate student. But I'd say the performance of the engine just needs to be "good enough" (wherever that point happens to be for each person), while my favourite part of my car is the great aftermarket stereo, which provides a nice improvement to the interior.

How much of the pain of long commutes derives directly from the commute, and how much derives from the need to wake up earlier and return home later? Does a 1-hour always-low-stress-never-in-traffic high-speed commute cause similar amounts of distress as a commute that averages 1 hour but is unpredictable because of traffic?

I certainly found myself bragging to everyone that my quality of life improved drastically when I bought a car and the duration of my commute to school was cut in half. When stuck in traffic, I have found that there are few ways to avoid completely wasting time: squeeze a stress ball to work out wrists, reflect on the day and think about ideas and plans (sort of like "driving meditation" previously mentioned), make phone calls (with a hands-free BlueTooth device of course). Needless to say, these strategies will not always work, and driving in traffic will usually be stressful.

Marina: Perceived school quality may be a rationalization, but it's one that I don't think stands up to scrutiny. There are good schools in the LA area, some of which are inside city limits, and there are bad schools in the area, some of which are out in the suburbs. The neighborhoods with good schools are, of course, always pricier than comparable neighborhoods with bad schools. It may even be the case that the close-in neighborhoods with good schools are too expensive for a given family's budget; however, this is more likely to be true of homogeneous suburbia than urban areas, where smaller housing units are the norm.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

So what does that imply for those of us who have an hours commute by public transport? (Especially those of us who make a deliberate choice to live in a city with good mass transit and do not need to drive at all).

IMHO, driving would severely decrease the quality of my life.

By Devdas Bhagat (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

Some people might think they hate the commute, but are merely unfamiliar with the alternative. Commuting has its upside. Chatting with family members, listening to music or NPR, clearing the mind and preparing for the day ahead. It can be a valuable transition period. When my job moved to a location directly next to my home (3 minutes door to door), I stopped making daily phone calls to my father, because there was no longer the opportunity. I found this to be a significant loss.

But if commuting is so awful, then why are our commutes getting so much longer? (More than 3.5 million Americans spend more than three hours each day traveling to and from work.)

You're conflating time with distance. Just because commutes are consuming more of people's time, doesn't mean that people are living farther away from their places of employment. The problem may simply be that traffic is getting worse; that is, it's taking more time to travel the same distance.

"The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."

Haha, so true.

By MDsquared (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'm curious - does 'commuting' in this context just mean driving, or does it apply to taking the train/bus/tram to work as well?

Far better to compare a big house with a long commute to a small house with a small commute than to an apartment with a small commute. The people in the apartments that share a wall or ceiling/floor with irritate me no end because I can hear everything they are doing. I'd far rather have a longer commute than live in an apartment, but then I don't drive and would be commuting on the bus or train (much less stress ;)

By Katherine (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

Price is also a significant factor. When my wife and I were shopping, we discovered that in our metro area (Vancouver, Canada), the price of a typical 1600-2500 square foot house or condo started around $1.2 million downtown, and dropped by about $200,000 for every 20 minutes of commute time beyond that point. As much as we would love to live in the city, it takes a lot of $ to make that choice.

It would take a lot of courage for my family to downsize our home significantly from 1600-2500 square feet to 800-1200 square feet. My wife and I seriously discuss this a few times per year, but we also realize that our mental health relies on "alone time" that is difficult to achieve in a small appartment.

Great article. However using a three bedroom apartment in the middle of the city as an example of compromising doesn't sound right. A three bedroom apartment is plenty of space. I'm reading this In Sydney Australia and a three bedroom apartment in the city is the goal not the compromise. Over a million USD easily. 2 million for a good one.

By John Mckelvey (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

Adding to the decision process is the overall quality of life achieved by living close to work. In URBAN STRESS, by Glass & Singer, noise was identified as the principal deterrent to the urban environment. I decided to live close to work and on an upper floor of a hi-rise condominium on a dead-end street, and in a sound-proof building. For me a high noise environment would not have worked and a commute would have been preferable.

By OftenWrongTed (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

I'd say the nature of the commute is a major factor. I have an hour-long commute every morning and night - and it's perhaps my favourite time of the day.

I have a 35 minute subway ride, and 25 minutes walk. On the subway (which is not crowded for most of the time since I go the "wrong" way) I have my personal downtime. I usually read a book or the newspaper in the morning, and study in the evening. And of course, people-watching is always entertaining.

The morning walk gives me a bit of light exercise and fresh air, and it clears my mind for the day. The evening walk is great, when I can finally stretch out and limber up after a whole day in front of the computer at work.

If I drove I'd probably be able to cut the time to 40 minutes - and I'd be utterly miserable the whole time.

What self-absorbed drivel. We make choices in life and live with the consequences. We once lived on Long Island with a 90 minute door-to-door commute. Think driving is painful? - try the LIRR. Twenty years later we were living in Jersey City with two 5 minute walks and a 5 minute ferry ride. Both were perfect for their times. That's life.

By OregonJon (not verified) on 30 Mar 2010 #permalink

With many things, people generally forget to think about the day-to-day process. You get a lot of respect being a doctor, but you also have to spend a lot of time dealing with sick people, charts, administrators, and insurance companies.

There is an old saying that 'It isn't the mountains that get you down; it's the pebble in your shoe'. Commuting five, sometimes six days a week tarnishes getting up and coming home. You dread going to work and dread going home, even though you want to be home. It wears you down.

45 minutes isnt a long commute.

Oddly, I kind of like me (45 minute each way) commute. It's some rare alone time for me and I like to use it listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

Also, echoing what some others have said about choosing the house in the suburbs instead of the place closer to work, it's not always about me. The happiness of my wife (who is a stay-at-home mom at the moment) and my kids factored in to the decision. My wife enjoys the bigger house and closer proximity to her family and our kids enjoy the large back yards and parks. We're a family, not a bunch of individuals.

I have a 50 minute train commute now, which I do because I wanted to switch jobs, and the best opportunities were in London. And the problems with public transport are many and legendary, whereas I used to actually feel invigorated when I commuted to work by motorcycle.

I think it's partly down to the way you treat your time whilst commuting (In my case I listen to podcasts and blog if the train wifi works). But it's impossible not to be infuriated by the loss of control, particularly in the face of delays or problems.

And how would congestion pricing solve commuting misery? People would just be miserable on trains/buses rather than in their cars, unless better commuting solutions are also made available?

What's the congestion price paid by the wife and kids for having a nice house in the country as opposed to an expensive rabbit hole in the city?

I live in NYC and I have to say the fact that I could commute on the subway to work -- or even walk -- is a big plus.

I am not bothered by noise much. In fact I am actively uncomfortable in a single-family house. And I am married.

Ditching the car has lowered my blood pressure considerably. But I am one of those who used to love driving, and now I find it stressful. I hate doing it unless I have to. On the subway -- even a crowded one -- I can read or sleep. I have finished many a novel there. And I only had to commute a half hour or so.

There's also an added cost to a car -- in NY it's $1000 a year in insurance I am not spending, whereas metrocards cost $840 for the whole year. And I don't pay for gas, maintenance, or own a depreciating asset.

I think there are a lot of reasons people went for big houses. One bit is cultural habit. I was watching one of those shows where people pick a new house. Consistently, European buyers don't seem to care about the size of the bathroom. Americans often think it's a deal-breaker. Stuff like that makes a difference I think, beyond commuting.

I had a 1 hour commute for several years when I went to university and found it to be relaxing. It was almost the only part of the day I could be alone. However, there wasn't much traffic on my drive.

I changed jobs once mostly in order to go from a 45 minute driving commute to a 30 minute walking commute. In the interview they thought I was nuts when I gave that as one of my reasons-- people know that commuting is terrible, but actually making a major life decision based on it? Nuts! It was a lasting improvement though,

My wife and I bought our first 2 bed town home 1 hr away from DC because it was all we could afford. We dreampt about moving closer in as our household income increased.

When the day arrived that we could pick and choose, we only went halfway back into the city. Sure I would have liked a 10 minute commute, but the schools/neighbors/church experience closer in dropped off precipitously.

To this day, I wonder if my being home 20 minutes earlier (67 hrs/year) would off set the downside to urban family life.

There's commutes and then there's commutes.

I've been driving to work at 3:30-4:00 in the morning for 20 years now, and it isn't the time behind the wheel that makes me nuts. It's the idiotic design of the roads. This would drive me crazy if my commute were a third its length. It's typical for me to be stopped on my way to work repeatedly at red myself, nobody in sight in any direction, at empty shopping malls. It eats between three and five minutes of my 45-minute commute on any given morning. And then there's the incessant overlighting of every street and business along the way, but that's another topic for another day.

So when it comes time for my noontime drive home, I'll gladly go eight miles out of my way east to catch a smoother drive north through the countryside...where I can stop at a great bakery to pick up some bread or rolls for dinner...then another eight miles west in the direction of my house. It actually takes me less time to go almost 20 miles out of my way on my way home, which says to me nothing about the value of my home, but rather that somebody at my state's DOT needs to examine their design strategies.

"Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable."

This is very interesting. My bike commute is a predictable 30min to work, 45min home (we live on top of a hill) -- a pretty long commute if measured by time, but actually a short distance.

My state of mind at commute's end is the same regardless of weather: I arrive at work charged up and at home ready for a beer (i.e. "good kind of tired"). Bike commuting isn't always pleasant but it's highly predictable.

Like others on this thread, I wonder whether "commuting" refers here only to commuting by car, and to what extent the happiness cost varies by mode of transport.

But you can show your big house to people, and gain status. It's a material, thing, which we tend to overweight compared to experiences.

By Mark Van Cleve (not verified) on 31 Mar 2010 #permalink

I think the real lesson of this bit of happiness research, which Lehrer mentions at the end and one or two commenters emphasize, is that we need congestion pricing. Aside from the positive revenue benefits, congestion pricing decreases traffic and therefore commute times. Over our lifetime, it will also reduce sprawl and encourage mass transit.

Job changes and two-body couples also influence choices. My job moved 100miles away, but my wife's did not so we kept the house--a small one, but pleasantly located and very near my wife's office. For a while we had a "pad" for me during the week in the Big City about 12 miles from my work (no one lives close to my work, which is in a hideous neighborhood), but the traffic could take 45 min or more to get home while driving. At that rate, I gave up the pad and took to the train: 2 hours each way, plus time to and from the station, but since I"m not drviing, it's productive work time. It just demands some organization on my part.

So not all people commute hellaciously because of naive decisions. But with a good public transit system, longer commutes can be feasible for those negotiated partnerships!

The idea that a long commute is "time to unwind" strikes me as the kind of lie people tell themselves when they try to make the best of a bad situation. I had this conversation with a lady at work once. She described her commute as her time to put the day behind her before she got home. I asked her if she lived five minutes from work whether she would go sit in her car for 45 minutes before going in the house to help her unwind. That clarified things a bit.

I ride my bike to work. It takes about ten minutes. It is wonderful! Those rare days that I drive, my head nearly explodes from how much I hate sitting in a car in traffic. It is suffocating! I think people that commute every day get desensitized, but let's face it. Sitting in traffic is horrible.

One factor that I feel like no one has really mentioned too much is that of dealing with stop and go traffic. This substantially adds to the stress of commuting because it requires the mind to be constantly engaged in making small changes every five-10 seconds or so. By contrast, commuting on an open road actually requires fewer constant adjustments and lower stress. In my experience at least. I suspect that a 1 hour, 60 mile commute is probably substantially preferable to a 1 hr, 10 mile commute for most people. The talk of driving as meditation seems impossible in stop and go type conditions.

Look, any discussion of choices related to where married people live in America ("housing options") that doesn't discuss our schools is grossly inadequate.

Since the 1960s that's been a key reason "married people" live outside cities. This is not exactly an unknown phenomena.

Ap Dijksterhuis is from the Netherlands. To cite him (and a pair of "Swiss economists") without acknowledging how things are different in the U.S. makes for a very silly discussion.

The married David-Brooks-reader in the U.S. who chooses to opt for "a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time" is very likely looking at spending tens of thousands of dollars (perhaps each year) to send his or her children to private schools rather than urban public ones. An hour outside the city and public schools become a much greater possibility. There are, no doubt, tons of statistics supporting this elementary fact.

The (admittedly wonderfully named) Ap Dijksterhuis might not know this. Lehrer, of course, should.

You simply can't discuss European models and not acknowledge how America is different.

I could go on and on. There are whole realms of American experience and history ("white flight", racism, crime, etc.) that are being ignored on the ludicrous assumption that Americans have simply been opting for the bigger houses, oblivious to the longer commute.

This post reads like a parody of oblivous academic discourse.

By Honoré de Bal… (not verified) on 31 Mar 2010 #permalink

When you are in love, you will climb mount everest to see your lover. When you hate your job, any commuting time is hell. But if you hate your job (with long commutes), but balance it with the love you've to provide more space freedom for your loved ones, then the pains are marginalised to a certain extent. It's a balancing act. There are many ways to while away the commute time. Watch a video, listen to music/audio books, read a book, chat with friends, work on a thesis, solve a personal issue (mentally), visualise the painting you want to paint, meditate, pray, etc. It is wise to make better a bad situation until such time as opportunities meet efforts to effect a change in another direction, than to make a bad situation badder by stressing over it (that is to say the long commutes arise from extraneous reasons after you've already committed to a house, rather than a deliberate choice made prior). However over the long run, it makes sense to want to reduce "non-quality time" spent away from your loved ones or what you want to do other than commuting, as we only have so many hours on earth. And imho, it is not preferable to sacrifice time away from loved ones for a big house, ultimately quality experiences are not necessarily contingent on material conditions but more in the way we treat each other, though material conditions can enhance the quality experiences, undoubtedly. This is relative to what each wants in life. Some people find it agreeable to spend 25% of their awake moments commuting (assuming you sleep 8 hrs/day & 4hrs/day commuting), because they want a bigger house they can afford but that's far from their workplace. Some people see that as a quarter of their lives taken away from spending it with their loved ones or doing something other than commuting. All said, notwithstanding the obvious mental/physical toll long commutes can impose on a person arising from transits conditions - traffic jams, lights, accidents, changing modes of transports, etc.. Personally, I'd rather live in a smaller house than to commute long hours per day, because spatial freedom to me is perceived, and it's easier for me to change my perception as it is within my control, than having to deal with transits' conditions daily that are usually not within my control.

Happy commuting. :-)

I commute by bicycle every day, no matter what the weather. I love it because it means I can get to work in pretty much the same time, regardless of the traffic conditions. Sometimes I have to bring a work vehicle home and also drive it to work the next day. When I do so, I find myself looking at cycle commuters with envy, particularly if traffic is congested.

By Michael Fanning (not verified) on 31 Mar 2010 #permalink

I do think the study holds up even when you factor in schools. I'm not saying that all urban schools are decent - there are clearly failing urban schools you don't want to send your kids to. But I do think that when making decisions about schools, white parents are too fearful and make too many assumptions about the quality of a urban/minority schools, just like they make too many assumptions about the value of those extra bedrooms.

I live in inside Houston, and used to commute 70 minutes a day to a suburban school (an odd inverse situation for a teacher). I lasted two years and then I cracked. I couldn't do my job well, I couldn't take care of my family well, the stress of teaching, being a parent, and watching 2-3 hours a day go into the void (the worst were car accidents, 30 extra minutes instantly lost) was too much.

I now teach at an urban high school 10 minutes from my house. Not only does the commute protect my sanity, I actually prefer the school. It is 85% hispanic, but it is safe, the teachers are strong, the building is beautiful, we have many great extra-curricular activities, and lots of fantastic kids. The school has problems, sure, and if my kid went there I would make sure he was only enrolled in pre-AP and AP classes, but still, it is a good option, and one that 99.9 percent of white parents, even parents who live right in the gentrifying neighborhood, refuse to even consider, because of color and prejudice.

The suburban school was good, but no so great that it is worth losing the company of your parents for 2 hours a day.

I think the study holds up. People sometimes make unreasonable calculations based on emotional factors that are imagined (fear, imagined prestige, imagined comfort, imagined suburban lifestyle) .

And the other side of this that has not really been discussed is all the other sources of enrichment that are lost when you move to the suburbs: great museums, libraries, live events, restaurants etc. If you want those when you live McCookie-Cuttersville, you have to commute BACK in, another loss.

I live across the street from my job so I would have no commute at all if I didn't have to drive two of my kids their separate daycare and preschool. The one gets on a school-bus so that's easy enough.

But when I do have to commute (6-8 times per month, I have an early meeting in the city which involves about 45 minutes in rush hour traffic), the stress is less from the horrible driving itself (though it is horrible), but from the time pressure. Cramming it all in: waking three kids, feeding them breakfast, packing their lunches, dressing them, getting them to their various drop-off points on time PLUS getting myself on the road on time to avoid the worst of the congestion is incredibly stressful. Inevitably I am running late and thus sitting in traffic worried that I won't arrive in the city on time or I'll arrive but be unable to find parking or construction/pavement resurfacing will demand a detour. Meanwhile, I am plotting course corrections in my head, should I try a back road to avoid that giant traffic jam ahead? And worrying, did I forget to leave the lunch box at the 3yos school? Did I write a note letting the first grader's teachers know that he should wait for the carpool today instead of attending after-school care? And the worst is when I'm in the city and I get the phone call on my cell that someone is sick. Or the occasions that I am driving back from Boston during rush hour trying to get to the daycare or school before the pickup time (and accompanying late fees charged to late parents by the minute)

I guess that my point is modern life is stressful because its pace is torrential. Even with a short commute, all of the stresses still exist AND a working mother is still juggling madly or often late to everything. But at least with the short commute, you aren't sitting still in traffic obsessing about being late. Nor are you an hour or two away from your child's daycare or school if something goes wrong.

I always thought they should give extra tax breaks to people who work and live in the same zip code. That would motivate people to live where they work!

I walk to work... '- )

At the risk of sounding like a socialist, it sounds like you should all put some money in a common pot and build some railways. Just don't call the common pot "taxes"... then you can even snooze on the way to work... or use the time productively for emails...

"Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans" said John Lennon......all we have is just a series of present moments. Why not be present and enjoy or at least use all of them, commuting or otherwise?

There are other factors to consider, when making comments about commuting, such as:
1) During that 1 hr drive, you can clear out your mind of work related items, so when you arrive home, you can enjoy your family.
2) Not all the school districts offer the same "education" to out kids, so if you want your kids to get the best sometimes that will make you drive even more than 1 hr.
3) Safety, I rather live in a very safe area, than dealing with someone breaking into my car or house
4) Even when you can live nearby ( i.e. LA ) you will stay more than 1 hr stock in traffic, so you can live outside the city and drive 1hr to get there, without the pain of being stock in traffic.
5) You need to plan your day, as you can see the people that are in a rush, because they're running late.
6) You can learn while in your car, sometimes you don't have the time to do it at home, however with the time spent in your car, you can do it with CD's or MP3.
7) Public transportation "sucks", so you have to use your own car to move around.

We bought out house in a neighborhood we liked 8 years ago. My commute was 20 minutes. Then my company moved and my commute was an hour. Then I got a new job, also with an hour commute. Then another new job with a 45 minute commute. My partner has also had multiple jobs with varying commute times. Houses are more permanent than jobs, which is why we live in a place we like and deal with the (temporary) commute times.

It's important to remember that long commutes are not caused by housing choices, but by the fake glamour of locating business in inaccessible, crowded locations like "downtown" and other overpriced central city activity centers. You don't have to get stuck on a clogged freeway to go to the grocery store. Why do corporations get away with cramming desirable employment in places where no one can afford housing, or that schools are bad, or worst yet, where too many other heavy-traffic-generating developments have already been built that clog all roads in the area? If urban planning were focused on providing employment, shopping, recreation and cultural opportunities equitably distributed throughout each metropolitan area, rather than cramming them in downtown to back justify their bad decisions for time/money-wasting "alternate travel modes", most severe traffic congestion would disappear into thin air. I have a big house because I have a wife, three teenagers and a grand parent. I don't dislike my choice because I know that I can change my house size to suit the changing needs and size of my family. Being in the suburbs, I'm more curious as to why bars line themseleves up on one street in downtown with insufficient parking and ultimately kill each other through intense competition, rather than distributing themselves and catering to local area needs. The same thing goes wrong with major employers, the medical profession, colleges and universities, major cultural establishments, sporting and event centers. Commuting time is intended to be less than 30 minutes. This is why we left slow and poorly connected mass transit systems behind 100 years ago, and built fully connected networks of streets and freeways to provide universal access to all the opportunities a city has to offer. Despite this positive step toward connecting the right people with the right jobs and other opportunities, the actions of the central city real estate lobby and other special interest groups has seeked to screw this up through Federal-level transportation policy boondoggles. It's important to realize that traffic congestion is an artificial construct, and it can be dramatically reduced with properly targeted policy without requiring trillion dollar investments in new infrastructure, or pissing anyone off other than the greedy central city real estate speculators. We still need to build some infrastructue, but the special interest groups were right about one thing: you can't build your way out of the traffic congestion caused by the speculative greed of the downtown real estate lobby by ANY mode of transportation. It would be nice if the silent majority would speak up about this. I'm tired of being the only starship in the quadrant.

By Michael Penic (not verified) on 01 Apr 2010 #permalink

People who hate commuting must have never heard of the iPod. Long commutes are where I get to listen to music, books on tape or podcasts. It's usually a very enjoyable experience.

I walk to work, half an hour each day, and usually listen to educational and current events podcasts during that time. I also get exercise and have practiced walking meditation from time to time. You don't need a car to do these things.

By Matt Benzing (not verified) on 01 Apr 2010 #permalink

the flaw is that given the state of the planet, commuting consumes energy and that should not be rewarded. People who walk should get some form of reward over those who don't from that perspective.

I recently bought a small house in a major city. We really like having public transport and various amenities in walking distance. My husband and I have a reverse commute, where we drive from the city to a suburb for our jobs. (Or take a bus, which can last twice as long as the drive, which takes ~30 minutes.)

But I figure we will be in the house much longer than we'll be at our current jobs. Being a reasonable commute away from work is okay for us, since we enjoy living in the city. Also, it will be more likely in the future that we will commute to the city rather than the suburb when we go on to our next jobs.

Perhaps this longer-term consideration is reflective of the trend of younger people expecting not to be at their jobs for an extended period of time. Long gone are the days of staying at one company for life, and thus the consideration of living near work becomes less important when buying a home.

I would tend to agree that the general nature of city planning in North America is flawed. Entire cities built around 'downtown' hubs with lollipop neighbourhoods with no services makes it next to impossible to live without a car.

That said, it's doubtful that things will be changing anytime soon, but I would argue (as many other here have) that modifying the way you commute can do a lot for your state of mind.

Transit or rail solutions are great, as are human-powered solutions like walking or cycling.

As one commenter pointed out, most commutes are actually not that far (in distance) but can be quite long (in time), by switching to an alternatives like transit you can focus that time on alternatives unavailable by car (ie. reading, sleeping, getting work done, etc.) or, by choosing a more active alternative (like walking or cycling), your commuting time can benefit your health. With obesity nearing epidemic proportions in North America hoping on a bike could solve both problems with one shot. Not to mention the savings on parking, gas and car wear.

With that said, many cities lack the infrastructure for a 'protected' commute for most walkers/cyclists (ie. bike lanes, paths, etc.). I hope as commutes become increasingly more cost/time/stress prohibitive I'm optimistic that governments will start dedicating time and resources to improving options for alternative commuting methods.

I commute ~100 miles a day, and yes I have many times thought about getting a job closer to my home, but my team is a very cohesive and fun unit to work with. My favorite commute IS when no one is on the road! I can ride in the middle lane (3-lane Interstate) and jam to my tunes on cruise control. You make me take off my cruise control and I become a force to be reckoned with!

As heyref said: "Houses are more permanent than jobs, which is why we live in a place we like and deal with the (temporary) commute times."

Many years ago, a co-worker bought a house 50 miles from where we worked. When I asked him why, his answer was almost exactly what heyref says.

Spouse and I have lived in our house for 22 years. We love the house, the neighborhood, the location in relation to everything else. In that 22 years, I've worked at 10 different locations, some north, some south, some accessible by public transit, some not. One job was 2 miles away. The current job is 75 minutes by train/shuttle (or 45 by car) one way.

The decision of where to live is under my control, and far more likely to be long-lasting. The commute (and the job) are not.

Over the past 10 years, I've been able to do more and more telecommuting. Currently, I telecommute 4 days a week. As an independent contractor, spouse usually works from home.

When you telecommute, you can "walk to work" a lot more often. My happiness quotient has gone up.

p.s. I stayed at the 2-miles-away job longer than I should have, simply because it was only 2 miles away. The job, however, was toxic and stressful. The current 40-miles-away job is a lot more pleasant. As others have noted, your happiness quotient can be correlated with something other than the commute time.

I agree with this. I hate long commutes and did one for several years and swore I'd never do it again. We recently relocated to Cincinnati and looked at houses in the suburbs but the commutes to downtown were awful, easily over 60 minutes during rush hour. We found an adorable, charming, smallish house in city neighborhood for the same price we could have paid for a 3000 sq foot starter mansion. We are so happy we bought the small house in the city neighborhood specfically because of the commute. My exit is the 2nd exit off of the freeway from downtown and every day on my way home I think syanara suckers to all the folks sitting there still in traffic with miles to go.

The happiness of my wife (who is a stay-at-home mom at the moment) and my kids factored in to the decision. My wife enjoys the bigger house and closer proximity to her family and our kids enjoy the large back yards and parks. We're a family, not a bunch of individuals.

Posted by: Jamie | March 31, 2010 9:53 AM

I echo those comments and agree that the commute is not bad if you are reading on public transit.

By Marie Knutson (not verified) on 02 Apr 2010 #permalink

I recently discovered that my 50 minute (usually) commute in a car takes about 1 hr and 10 minutes on my bicycle (at a very comfortable pace, obeying all traffic laws). However, the physiological benefit obtained by cycling is extraordinary. And I'm not just talking about the exercise. Bike riding is flat out fun. On my ride I have a sense of adventure (my physical vulnerability?), a visceral sense of the journey I am making. Inevitably I have to interact with other people on the way and that is usually accompanied by some kind of greeting. I feel more connected to my community as a result of these brief interactions. Plus I have an enormous sense of freedom. If I want to stop and examine something more closely, the process is so much simpler than in a car (signal, pull over, find the turn, identify a parking space, etc...), that I actually do from time to time.

At the end of the day, my travel takes about 40 minutes longer, but I have actually saved time because I have also accomplished my exercise.

I think part of it is the sitting. People who sit all day then have another 3 hours of sitting in the car are probably expressing the body's rage at forced immobility (among other things).

A creative option for people worried about inner city schools - get together with some neighbors and hire a teacher to homeschool the kids. That's cheaper than tuition at some posh private school and you save in real estate (if your inner city neighborhood is affordable in the first place, of course)

"Honore de Balzac was an urban planner" says the European researchers have a bias based on the nature of their cities even as he/she demonstrates a similar bias: the assumption that urban areas have bad schools requiring parents to spend tens of thousands of dollars in private-school fees if they live there, and that families need to flee the urban core to find happiness.

I live in a small city--Spokane, Washington--which has award-winning public schools. The high school my younger daughter attends was named among the top high schools in the nation based on AP scores (Newsweek 2009). It sits near the freeway on a downtown street, not off in a secluded woodsy campus. Parents sacrifice nothing by choosing to live in the city and send their kids to school here.

We have a river running through the middle of our downtown with the Centennial Trail running along it from Idaho into Washington; four-season recreation everywhere you turn; five colleges/universities in town; a symphony, museums, art galleries; a downtown with one-of-a-kind local shops as well as major department stores. I can get to all of this without driving; even the ski hills have shuttles.

Like several who commented here, I couldn't be happier with my bike commute (10 minutes downhill to work, 20 minutes uphill on the way home), with a bike lane for about half the route.

The frustration a driver feels at a red light? I view red lights as a chance to rest, so I welcome rather than resent them. When I ride the bus during the winter I don't even notice the lights because they're not mine to cope with--I'm immersed in a book or catching up on email.

Your response to any type of commute is what you make of it. That's the real secret to happiness.


I have heaps of meetings to attend to in my job, my 35 minute commute drive allows me to have that most important meeting of all before I get to work:the meeting with myself, and then the debrief on the way home

Before I completely changed my life, I worked a job I hated that I had to drive 50 minutes each way to and from. Even though I worked nights, it was busy on the roads almost all the time, I had to drive through bad parts of town with ridiculous traffic. Though there was a long stretch of fast highway for me, this was actually a curse, as it was about the most dangerous driving you can imagine - packed with cars going more than 120km/h. And in the winter, since the highway was exposed, it became a dangerous snow-swept ice field. One day a semi-truck filled with gas containers slipped and exploded, and the whole damn highway was closed.
One day *I* was in a terrible accident that closed the three-lane highway down to one lane.

Not only was the drive excruciatingly uneven, it was also a danger to my life (and everyone else's).

Even on quiet nights driving back home, I still regretted the 50+ minutes I could have been better spending making a better dinner, reading, calling my girlfriend, or being asleep.
Music? Well, you can listen to music in the car, but the road noise ruins it. I'd rather spend the 50+ minutes at home listening to music.

No matter how you cut it, a long drive is absolute hell. But people like Barb are totally right when they say you must at least *try* to take advantage of it. Sometimes we are in situations where we have to deal with it for a while - especially if we live in a place we don't want to move from, and have shifting employment.
We need to deal with these things but we also need to recognize when too much is too much.

That's why I ended up giving it all up and moving to Europe to pursue my dream. It's working. I live in a small dilapidated apartment right next to a noisy highway. The rent is less than $200. It's a 5-minute cycle ride to the University and a block away from the grocery store.
It's not perfect, as it's quite noisy, but I've never been happier and I have time to do things I want to do. The chronic pain from my stomach disorder is almost non-existant now that it's not exacerbated by constant stress of driving and a job that I hate and a city I hated even more.

Long drives and commutes must be dealt with and taken advantage of, but they are never, ever good things - especially because of the danger of driving!

does this apply to SUVs and wanting giant vehicles for the 2 days a year you want to haul stuff?

Being Married, I'm certainly more miserable most of the time than when I was single. Love my wife, but with kids and responsibilies.. I no longer have time to ride/run.. which is my love and hobby.. and source of better health and low blood pressure... Commute is actually the one break I get from work and home life.. so the longer the better. I also occationally bike in.. it takes a full hour+ for the 20 mile commute.. but dependending on when I leave, it can be a similar travel time to the car. Taking kids to daycare and other duties make it difficult to do that often.. but I've discovered a hybrid commute works well.. you drive in with the bike.. drop off kiddo at daycare.. then bike home.. bike in the next day.. drive home and pick up kiddo.. so this requires rotation of pickup/dropoff w/ wife.. but adds to quality of life.. I used to have a tiny house close to work with the similar situation.. I find that having a big mcmansion outside of the city (same cost as tiny in-city) that havng additional space provides much less stress.. and the 5 mile bike commute wasn't actually long enough to get a good workout on times I rode the bike in.. too much trouble to get all the gear together, ride in, mess with lockers/showers/etc @ work.. the hybrid bike/car commute with only having to take 1 shower a day.. with the longer commute.. is mo-betta..

Even though my comment is undoubtedly lost in the bottom, I have three points.

1. The whole 'suburban fools' and 'us urban geniuses' division automatically alienates everyone from considering alternatives, or rhetoric, and is simply completely unproductive. If all bloggers and 'sustainable living' advocates adopted "we" as in, "we choose to live in the suburbs" and "we have become fat and lazy" it would be a big step forward.

2. Humans (and the author of this article) love finding simple solutions for complex problems even when there is none. The 'they thought wrong' approach to the reasons people choose suburban housing is just oversimplified. There are a wide range of lifestyle and practical reasons people consider when choosing where to live. Sure, people may underestimate the pain of a long commute, but this is by no means the deciding or even a key criteria. Saying that "they (again why use the terms 'them' and 'us'?) choose a bathroom over years of commuting" is denigrating and unproductive.

3. There are high quality jobs in the suburbs, and the suburbs are not significantly less healthy (as in bodily health) than urban living. In the first place, schools, hospitals, and low density commercial/industrial lands provide quality jobs in the suburbs. Denying that some people could live closer to a high quality job in the suburbs is simply wrong. I know the answer is that those lands shouldn't be there, we shouldn't build hospitals and schools in the suburbs, and maybe there will be progress in this area with better zoning, but this is a process and a fact of life today. On the health aspect, more active / healthy people tend to want to live places where they can be more active and healthy (urban) not that it isn't possible to be lazy and fat in the downtown. For example, for a person who loves road-biking in the country, being on the periphery of a city could be an advantage.

In my case, as a semi-urban homeowner, we chose a house which my wife could walk or bike to work (which she did) and I was a thirty minute transit ride from work. In only two years we have both changed work locations and are now both basically required to drive... in both cases the advantages outweighed the cost. In my case my drive to work is shorter than my transit commute was so is not a complete loss. For my wife it was a significant promotion. It sucks but is a fact of life in the current economy and cities we live in.

Statistically, commuters will change jobs, (What is it? Six to eight times before they reach 40 years of age?), and so, culturally, we move around a great deal. We have periods in our lives that commuting occurs over larger distances, then times when commuting is less of an issue. When I lived two blocks from my work in downtown Austin I spent 16 -18 hours a day working. Putting some distance between my work and home was very healthy. I might be dead by now if I had continued living and working a few blocks away. I don't miss the convenience of downtown one bit. In fact, I enjoy the quiet away time from bright lights and the big city.

By Noel Rodriguez (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

I'll play devil's advocate here: Was this study only a measure on the wage-earner's quality of life? How is the effect of living in tight quarters (or, alternately, the taj majal) measured on the other members of the household? My husband has a bear of a commute, but it only affects him. Not the other four members of the family, each of whom have their own bathroom.

Great article. My only thought is what is the impact of school systems ont he equation. I suspect people/commuters place a large value on school systems.

By Glenn Kurtz (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

I don't know if the point has been made, likely not, that there is an element to driving largely glossed over and undiscussed, and that is the bubble the car creates. Most of the time, we love that bubble, but sometimes, especially when we're in traffic, we need to commiserate. Honking the horn, while irrational, sometimes does the trick. Honkers are saying, 'this sucks, right?' Think about the car for a moment as a shell: sometimes we want and need to be in our shells, and sometimes we want to get out and play! In traffic, at any speed, I think people want to communicate with each other; sometimes in not so friendly ways, but often in very friendly ways if you catch my drift. We see people, but can't talk to them. How cool would it be to be able to strike up a personal conversation with just about anybody, in traffic? (And also to be able to tune those offers out). My guess is the experience would be more humanized. I remember as a child being so enamored with the walkie-talkie; where I grew up in rural Montana many people had these in their cars. And a few times I traveled with my dad, a short-haul trucker; it was so cool that he could just talk to folks with that thing. My digression has a point, and a leading question: why is it that train commuters and car commuters report differently regarding happiness, for a given, equal length of time spent in transit?

By Phil Stephens (not verified) on 15 Apr 2010 #permalink

I dont think commuting is for everyone, but I dont agree that it is all bad. I worked at city hospital in Boston.. NOT somewhere I wanted to live right next to... and rent in the city is crazy expensive! Instead I bought a place near my family that gave me a 45-55 minute commute w/o much traffic. Since I go in before the traffic, and work 12's...but only 3 days a week, I can handle the commute. Sure it sucks after a nightshift when im tired.. but overall, i kinda liked it. It was really nice to have the alone time, to de-stress after seeing a child die. Being home in 5-10 minutes would not have given me enough time to leave work at work..

if i had to be in rush hour traffic everyday, 5 days a week, I'd prob feel differently.. but, in the long run, I dont think such articles really apply well to all people.

And ya, Im one of those people that has a big suv, but no kids.. however I wouldnt trade it for the world. Im able to get to work in all weather conditions, often passing people that are stuck in the snow.. (the streets at 4am are not always plowed well...)..and Ive been rear ended several times on my way too or from work.. cars that hit me are totaled and my SUV has always been drivable. And yes, the 10-30 days a year I need to haul something, or use the 7 passenger seating, make it well worth it, for ME.

This assumption that people have long commutes for bigger houses as a status symbols just doesn't ring true to the life experience of many. Where gentrification has take hold, those with low and modest incomes have been forced out. The people commuting the longest are hardly after status but instead just trying to get by. The DC core is now completely unaffordable to many families. The arrogant professional class gentrifiers are smug and pleased with themselves over not commuting, and they get the green bonus too, while the woman who serves them food or mops the floor is riding buses for two hours to get to work.

I can't believe that people are so stupid. It's simple math. I drive 15 minutes to and from work (and that's in rush hour), and 5 minutes to the gym. When I'm not at work, I need to be on my bike as I'm a competitive athlete. The 30 minutes total time of commuting enables me to spend 3hrs a night on my bike to train. It wasn't hard to figure out. I think the whole race to the suburbs race to downtown lifestyle is for the retarded sheep who follow everyone else's game.

I assure you it's true. I'm married, walk to work, and am happy. AND it's a bargain, even in one of the most expensive cities in the US. Automobile commuting is two unpaid hours a day of expensive misery. If you can't walk or bike to work, then you either live too far from work or you work too far from home -- it's as simple as that. There's no honor in being a fool. Make the necessary changes, without delay. You'll be SO glad you did.

By Avery St. Clair (not verified) on 17 May 2010 #permalink

Unfortunately, living near the city is too expensive for most people who would like the benefits of a comfortable home experience. Coupled with limited commuting options long commutes are here to stay. However, there is another option for those who live far from their workplace. Commuter Swap is a home exchange service geared towards commuters or those looking for temporary housing. Think vacation exchange with a destination of a better commute -

Many great comments above.

I came to this thread with an "I love commuting" Google search, based on The Onion mug, FWIW.

My 9-year, 1-1.5 hour commute has officially become old. The most maddening thing is that it was a smooth, moving commute. However, the sheer volume of traffic has added time to it - expectations of horrific, 10-car pileups yield nothing. Just volume traffic. THAT is maddening.

The comparison of a three-bedroom house in the city to a bit more in the 'burbs is a poor one. Our trade-off, a suburban four-bedroomer, would have cost 100K for the NEXT TOWN CLOSER (but still distant) to the city (Boston), and a three-bedroomer in Boston would be affordable to .000005% of the people reading this blog. Options would be more like a hovel. So the home quality tradeoff is much more considerable, at least in my state.

Yes, NPR and Sirius cushion the blow. The "quiet" time can be theraputic in its way. And the weekends with a big, quiet back yard are sublime retreats for those of us who don't want to hear somebody else's rap music cranking next door.

But commuting in traffic makes me think long and hard about other options.

Late to this thread. Must say, though, that I'm astonished that the question of commuting is being framed in terms of personal happiness. June 2010, the Deepwater Horizon blowout has been going since late April with no definite end in sight, and people still think the main impact of this commuting lifestyle is on THEMSELVES? I understand that jobs are scarce and a lot of people effectively have no choice but to drive ridiculous distances to work in their private motor vehicles, but really. The main problem isn't only that it sucks for you. It's the environmental and political consequences of this crappy lifestyle. Climate change, war in Iraq, the loss of the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, and all for what? So commuters can sit isolated in traffic in their cars, wishing for a different kind of life? It's just amazing & heartbreaking.

Nothing is going to change for the better unless we as citizens decide we don't want this kind of world anymore. But what are the odds of THAT happening? We seem to be stuck in an extremely bloated & complex system with an unstoppable momentum: the analogy that springs to mind is a Hummer with broken brakes, speeding off a cliff. And we're all sitting in it listening to NPR and doing 'driving meditation'.

Roll on, collapse.

By google 'peak oil' (not verified) on 23 Jun 2010 #permalink

ï¼1ï¼Yes, we do not like commute because people did not do it 10,000 years ago. Commute can not be a valid happiness.
ï¼2ï¼Yes, we should not like big house as our ancestors did not have it then. It must be a kind of invalid happiness.
(See "Is Your Happiness Valid?" Kindle/paperback book at

The problem with congestion pricing is that it is, like road tolls, a regressive tax. As such, it places the burden of taxation on the poor.

While I agree, personally, with the main arguments about commuting, they do rely on a certain assumption: that people who commute are mostly suburban homeowners who chose a long commute as a cost in exchange for perceived better housing (equating it with a higher happiness index). What this assumption overlooks are the large number of people who do not have the privilege of choice of housing or commute for reasons other than a homeowning luxury.

So the problem with congestion pricing is that the idea is largely a projection of how a certain demographic commutes.

The result is a tax on the poor for a behavior they may not be able to alter so that the less poor who have options don't have to change their behavior at all (unless they want to).

Hey peeps, would you please weed out some of the spam so that it's easier to read your posts? Thank you! I have a slow isp and it takes a long time to pull down your page!

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Scientists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and industrialists are all evaluating various methods to reducethe effects of industrial activity on global environment.

It depends on the quality of the commute, not just the length. Forty-five minutes can be stressful if you are driving in traffic. But if you are sitting on a train, it can be a relaxing time that you can spend reading or thinking and actually enjoy. It works as long as there are reliable trains that are not overcrowded (I'm thinking about the Swiss railroad, not NJ transit! :)

Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

Of the last five years I have spent the equivalent of one year on my commute. Seriously. Although 40 minutes of it is spent with a stunning ferry ride that tourists pay big bucks for, at the end of the day my time is worth more. Why I'm selling my beautiful Ocean home with one of the best views in the World (and lots of bathrooms). Sad but serious.

Im very proud that I 1) am not a bigot 2) actually read the things I talk about 3) do not succumb to the racist hate I see in this blog 4) Voted for an intelligent man who will, depsite the actions of the obstructionists who have no idea whats best for the country will save our collective asses. He actually already started, and the signs are there, but of course nobody here will give him credit but theyll lie and lie to make him look worse.

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