Muni Bus Equality For All

The Surprising Costs Of Your Commute

in Financial Planning by

I usually leave the house each morning at 6:50. I hop in the car and drive to the train station, usually getting there around 7:05. I spend eight minutes waiting on the platform, using that time to catch up on news or download a podcast for my train ride. My train arrives at 7:13, and I get off at 8:02. From the train station, I walk 1.2 miles to the office, usually arriving by 8:30. My total commute time? An hour and forty minutes, one way.

According to the United States Census Bureau, I’m an “extreme commuter.” About 3.5 million Americans are also extreme commuters, averaging more than ninety minutes each way. One in six spend more than forty-five minutes commuting each way, while the average American spends about twenty-four minutes.

For most people, commuting is the worst part of their day. In 2006, Princeton professors Daniel Kahneman (Winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) and Alan Krueger published a paper titled “Developments in the Measurement of Subjective Well-Being.” In the study they surveyed 900 Texan women on common activities, including working, intimate relations, housework, and commuting in both the morning and evening. Of nineteen surveyed activities, the morning commute was rated the least enjoyable.

Additional research has backed Kahneman and Krueger’s conclusions. Findings have shown that a long commute has negative effects on an individual’s physical health, mental health, and social life. Considering these adverse effects, is your commute worth it?

Physical Health Concerns

Generally speaking, the more time we spend commuting, the less time we spend exercising or fixing our own meals, leading to a higher chance of obesity. Thomas J. Christian of Georgia State University found that we are less likely to spend money grocery shopping, opting instead to spend that money eating out and grabbing fast-food. Christian’s research also discovered that longer commute times make people more likely to opt for lower-intensity exercise and sleep less than their lightly-traveled peers. (See: What Is A Healthy Body Weight For Males And Females?)

A survey issued by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that one in three extreme commuters are more likely to experience recurrent neck and back problems. UCLA and Cal State-Long Beach found vehicles miles to be the highest-correlated variable with obesity.

Long commutes make us more likely to spend more money eating out, forego exercise, sleep less, experience body aches, and gain weight. And that’s just the physical effects.

Mental Health Problems

Long commute times also lead to increased mental stress and diminished workplace productivity. The Gallup survey found that 40% of workers who commute more than ninety minutes each way experienced worry for much of the previous day. For workers with a negligible commute, deemed to be under ten minutes, this number fell to 28%. In addition to spending more time worrying, the study found that extreme commuters were less likely to experience enjoyment than their peers with negligible commutes.

Christian also studied workplace behavior, attempting to understand whether commuting or the total length of the workday had a significant effect on workers. In comparing a worker who had a one hour commute and a ten-hour workday and a worker with a negligible commute and a twelve-hour workday, he found that the latter had healthier habits. Though both workers spent the same total amount of time getting to work and actually working, the two hours spent commuting prove to be the difference. Having a negligible commute leads to healthier habits and allows workers to devote more time to their daily tasks.

From a manager’s perspective, it could be reasoned that a worker with a negligible commute is more attractive than one with an hour-long commute. Maintaining a workout regimen and healthy diet have a positive correlation with workplace productivity, and given Christian’s example, better allow workers to spend more productive time at work than their commuting counterparts.

Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, two economists at the University of Zurich, found that for an extra hour of commuting time, a worker would need a 40% salary increase to justify the time they spend commuting. Analyzing this from a manager’s point-of-view, not only are commuting workers more sleep-deprived and stressed, they are also more expensive due to the massive increase needed to make their commute worthwhile.

Uh-oh. It’s not looking good for me.

Social Life Disappearing

Between the time you spend commuting to work, the time you spend at work, and the time you spend commuting from work, the majority of the day is gone. Even after assuming that extreme commuters get less sleep than the average American, there is a short amount of free time to be enjoyed. Robert Putnam, a Harvard University professor and author of Bowling Alone, identifies long commuting times as one of the foremost indicators of social isolation.

For Putnam, the social isolation golden ratio is as follows: For every ten minutes one spends commuting, he or she can expect ten percent fewer “social connections.” According to Putnam, over the past twenty-five years, Americans have also experienced a 58% attendance drop in club meetings, a 43% decrease in family dinners, and a 35% decline in having friends over.

Applying this to my case, the ninety minutes I spend commuting would theoretically lead to a 90% decrease in my social connections. Right off the bat, this makes sense. My social life currently consists of occasionally going out to dinner, attempting to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and watching The Sopranos when I’m unable to fall asleep. As Putnam points out, “Watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.”

It’s really not looking good for me.

Perhaps the most troubling statistic is provided by Umea University in Sweden. Researchers found that marriages in which one partner commutes at least forty-five minutes are 40% more likely to end in divorce. So not only does longer commute times drive you towards social suicide, it also places significant strain on marriages.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

Let’s take a quick look at the most popular reason people choose to live far from where they work: buying a home.

Real estate agents often say “Drive until you qualify.” Though purchasing a home for a growing family comes with significant costs such as a down-payment, mortgage, and property tax, there are plenty of tangible benefits that come from buying your own place. It’s understandable how someone can justify their commute by pointing to the big backyard their kids play in, or the extra bedroom for their parents, or the nursery for their newborn. These reasons will continue to remain valid, and can be a bigger source of personal joy than the additional income saved by renting a cheaper apartment.

Transportation becomes a more significant cost the further away from work you live. Driving is expensive and comes with plenty of variable costs, including gas, car insurance, and vehicle maintenance.

Economists often point to cost of time as the one factor people fail to consider. Is it worth it moving to the house with the backyard your kids play in if you can’t spend as much time playing with them? How much is the time you spend commuting worth in terms of time you can’t spend with your family and friends? Is it worth not spending that extra hour exercising, sleeping, or socializing?

Ultimately, the question of whether it’s better to live closer to work or farther to work comes down to the intangible benefits of each. By living closer to work, you know that your physical health, mental health, and social life will have a better chance of thriving. Living further away from work could let you buy your dream house or find a great school district for your kids. It’s up to you to decide which provides you more happiness.

Readers, how far is too far of a commute? Given all the detriments of a long commute, does this mean prime property closer to work will simply increase further in value? Will longer commutes allow for more flexible work hours or the creation of location-independent businesses? 

Photo Credit: Muni Diaires

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Arun Sundaresan

Arun Sundaresan

Arun Sundaresan is a Portfolio Management Intern at Personal Capital. Arun has previously worked at Citigroup in London, and spent time at Personal Capital last summer. He is currently studying Finance at Washington University in St. Louis.

10 comments

  1. Financial Samurai

    Commuting could be one of my most disliked things of all time. I’ve become accustomed to a sub-30 minute commute that can be walked or biked to if needed. I think there’s been a huge movement of people wanting to live in urban centers again.

    The tech companies purchasing SF property over the recent 5 years is a demonstration of this. I think real estate prices start getting even more expensive compared to outer region properties as a result.

    Gotta say though, the traffic in SF is pretty bad now. Reminds me more like Manhattan every day.

    Reply
  2. jen

    My commute is to nyc from nj. Its about an hour and 15 minutes door to door. More than half the commute is by train. This is where I do my breathing and meditation which centers me for my day in the office as an IT director. Its the only part of my day that is all to myself and just for me. Make of your commute what you will. You do not have to choose to get fat and unsociable because of a long commute. If it weighs you down to the point where you don’t enjoy life because of it, its time for a new job or a different residence.

    Reply
  3. Saga

    I commute for approx. 90 minutes each way, and although I try to make the best use of the time I can by eating my breakfast on the train, reading newspapers and books, working, I hate it. I have had this commute for the past 5 years, and I’m not willing to move closer to the location of my job, and instead I’m actively looking for something new closer to where I want to live. I would be willing to take a pay cut to for a 30 min or less commute. I can definitely see the impact on the commute on my dwindling social life and lack of exercise, I have so little free time. It doesn’t help that there are frequent train delays and problems, resulting in my 1.5 h home often ends upp closer to 2 h….

    Reply
  4. mike

    This is really interesting. So, I hate commuting, but mine is a solid hour door to door. We live close to my wife’s job, far from mine. She used to commute, and I worked from home, so we moved to be closer to her job. Then my work from home job went away and I got a new one an hour away, her commute is 10-15 min by car. I take the bus, even though I have an essentially brand new vehicle in the garage. I determined it’s ten times more expensive to drive that thing to work than to leave it home and take the bus. I don’t see an impact on social life since we’re in a really right knit neighborhood, but definitely find it more difficult to exercise. I also see an impact on professional networking, which I do a whole lot less of now.

    Reply
  5. Scott

    Moved to Brooklyn where I had a <30-min commute each way to suburban NJ where it's anywhere from 80-90 mins door to door, involving a 10-min walk to the station, a commuter train and subway and 5-10 min walk at the other end. As the piece highlights, it's all a big tradeoff, one way or the other.

    As others have noted, however, and which the piece does not, is there's a significant difference between commute by car and commute by public transportation. Yes, the latter is imperfect and not up to global best practices, but I'd rather be able to write a poem, read a book or magazine, write emails or do any one of a hundred other things (with a yogurt on the way in and a beer on the way back) than sit in traffic.

    Moreover, I am very lucky to be able to work from home one day a week, cutting the commute to no more than 4x weekly.

    Reply
  6. Parker

    Wow! I’m very fortunate. My commute is about 75 minutes each way. It’s the best part of the day for this 73-year-old guy. Oh yes – I bike.

    Reply
  7. Joey

    I’m very lucky as well. 35-minute commute by bike, or 20 by car or train. In the expensive bay area, delaying or even forgoing a home purchase and instead renting in a beautiful area close to work feels like a far better way to live. Time is too precious to waste on commuting.

    Reply
  8. The MAD Consultant

    The last few paragraphs really hit the nail on the head. Don’t take advice from the real estate agent. They really won’t care if your commute is 2 hours a day. Also the yard for the kids is way less useful without you in there playing with them. It’s nice to see this article address the physical health, mental, and social issues associated with driving. I think the physical and mental health issues are vastly under estimated. I should look into writing an article on this myself. It’s just much harder to quantify so you don’t see much written about it. Personally I feel way better after basically ditching my car for 95% of my trips, and I was already keeping myself in great shape. The mental aspect is where I noticed it the most. My brain feels more alert and active when I don’t drive, and on days I do I can really notice how stressed and crabby driving makes me feel.

    Reply
  9. Dave

    I’ve been commuting 45 minutes to an hour each way for 9 years and it’s tolerable for the most part except during winter when the stress level really cranks up and that time can easily double. With the increasing cost of gas, car maintenance and tolls ( not to mention the wasted time) it’s questionable as to whether it’s worth it .

    Reply
  10. Geoffroy Ménard

    Commuting ain’t so bad in a bike. Would be even better if there were so many trucks, SUVs and cars around, idling at red lights and wondering when they’re gonna have time to get some exercice… Living at 10km and less to one’s job greatly enhances quality of life.

    Reply

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