Killing Me Slowly

Long commutes take their toll on our health and emotional well-being.
This post is part of the research project: Word on the Street

heavy traffic istock As a recent convert to bike commuting, I am keenly aware that I take my life into my hands each time I saddle up (See Jen Langston’s recent post on the safety of various modes of transportation—relatively, bikes don’t come out looking too safe, but, of course, car travel ain’t exactly without its risks either.)

But, if all commutes can kill, at least I’ll go down with the wind in my hair, a smile on my face, and feeling fit and energized (and smug, apparently). The point is, I get to ride my bike to work mostly because I have a relatively short commute. Many aren’t so lucky. And as new research shows, long commutes—car crashes and other accidents aside—take their toll in other more insidious ways—killing us slowly or at least causing some misery and suffering while we’re alive.

In fact, American workers with lengthy commutes are more likely to report a range of adverse physical and emotional conditions, leading to lower overall scores on Gallup-Healthway’s “well-being index.” Whether it’s time away from family and friends, sitting uncomfortably in a confined space, loss of exercise and recreation time, or bouts of road rage, long commutes take their toll.

According to the study, American employees report an average commute from home to work of 23 minutes (about exactly the length of my bike ride!), with average times higher in most of the country’s largest metro areas. About one in five US workers (19 percent) spend more than half an hour getting to work, and 3 percent commute for more than an hour each way. The research doesn’t seem to differentiate between car or transit commuters—I mean some of these folks could be taking a bus, a ferry, or a train…or all of the above. But I think it’s safe to assume that the bulk of the results represent car commuters, and at the very least people who are sitting (not pedaling) for most of the commute.

Those who do report long commutes are more likely to complain of several health problems. For example, one in three workers with a commute of more than 90 minutes say they have had a neck or back condition that has caused recurrent pain in the past 12 months. Those with long commutes are also more likely to say they have at some point been diagnosed with high cholesterol and are more likely to have a Body Mass Index that classifies them as obese.

Those are some of the tolls long commutes seem to take on our bodies. But what does all that time sitting in traffic do to our minds? Here’s Gallup on the emotional impacts:

The psychological toll of long commutes may be as detrimental to individuals’ wellbeing as the physical effects. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger in 2004 tracked the emotional states of employed women in Texas during their daily activities. They found that respondents’ ratio of positive to negative emotions was particularly low during time spent commuting.

Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index results also point to a connection between commuting and emotional wellbeing. Among employees who take more than 90 minutes getting from home to work, 40 percent experienced worry for much of the previous day—significantly higher than the 28 percent among those with negligible commutes of 10 minutes or less. Conversely, workers with extremely long commutes were less likely to have experienced enjoyment for much of the previous day or to say they felt well-rested that day.

Galup commute wellbeing

Gallup suggests that the findings should motivate employers to consider the social costs in productivity and creativity and turnover as they weigh decisions about location, transit and parking policies, and flexibility around telecommuting and other tricks for reducing the need to commute each and every day.

For my part, I used to take exception to cycling fanatics’ (some very close to me) holier-than-thou attitude. I guess I’ve joined their ranks now. But I try not to be too holy. And I certainly don’t suggest everyone can or should commute the way I do. Far from it. What I do think this study indicates are some real personal and basic quality of life reasons—forgetting for a moment community-level reasons like traffic, pollution, energy politics, global warming—to insist that we grow our cities in such a way that affordable housing is close to job centers, transit is accessible and convenient, and biking and walking is safe.

Image: istock.

For a larger version of the table and the full report, click here.

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  1. Mike says:

    It could be argued that because car commutes tend to be shorter, car dependency actually reduces commuting-related stress and misery. Anyone want to take on that claim?

  2. VeloBusDriver says:

    2 months ago I decided to switch from a 4 mile bike commute to a 8.5 mile commute because 4 miles just isn’t long enough. After 2 months, I’m loving it, and have signed up for 3 more months. So Mike, do you know any automobile commuters who have specifically chosen a longer commute just so they can sit behind the wheel twice as long? Just curious.

  3. Anna Fahey says:

    A couple things…first, are car commutes really shorter? I don’t know the numbers on that. And even if they are shorter in actual distance, they can take longer if you end up sitting in traffic…(My own bike commute is faster than the same commute by bus or car during rush hour—but that’s not counting time it takes to shower and change once I arrive at work.)Second, consider the stress and misery caused by high fuel prices as families struggle through this recession; consider the hassles (and costs) of parking, and consider the long-term stresses (and costs) of poor health.While any given individual may find their car commute to be the least stressful way to go, I’m just not sure there’s a good argument that on the whole car commuting reduces stress and misery.

  4. Chris Covert-Bowlds says:

    Physical activity reduces depression, anxiety, stress, as documented by the Surgeon General, and my personal experience, bicycle commuting 15 miles each way to work. Details:”Bicycling reduces your stress and improves your health. Bicycle commuters get to work on time more often, and are often happier and more productive employees. “Physical activity appears to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve mood… Regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing depression…Physical activity reduces the risk of premature mortality in general, and of coronary disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and diabetes mellitus in particular. Physical activity also improves mental health and is important for the health of muscles, bones and joints.” (“Report on Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, 1996)Bicycling can be a fun, dependable and very low-cost mode of transportation. Bicycling also burns about 500 calories an hour, so you can commute and stay fit at the same time. (”Bicycle commuting is a positive alternative to garage-highway-garage journeys that isolate commuters and clog roads. More cycling means less traffic, cleaner air, and fewer accidents.” (Bicycling/Moving America Forward, Bikes Belong Coalition, September 2005)Bicycling is often faster than other modes of transportation for distances over three miles. In congested situations it is often faster for distances up to five miles. “On a bicycle, you can travel on secondary roads and paths, often arriving in less time than if you’d driven through rush-hour traffic!” ( saves you time—the time it takes to search for car parking, the time spent at gas stations since you won’t need to fill up, and the time wasted sitting in traffic.Bicycling saves you money: The cost of operating a car for one year is approximately $5,170 (AAA Mid-Atlantic, The cost of operating a bicycle for a year is only $120 (League of American Bicyclists, Bicycling is energy-efficient: If one out of 10 commuters switched to walking or biking, we’d save 2 billion gallons of gas a year. Every transit commuter who bike rides to the station saves an average of 150 gallons of gas per year. Every car commuter who switches to biking and transit can save 400 gallons of gas a year. (Marin County Safe Routes to Schools Fact Sheets) Bicycling reduces polluting emissions. A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air we breathe. (WorldWatch Institute, Motor vehicles are responsible for roughly 50% of all greenhouse gases and 75% of the smog in the Bay Area. Cycling can play an important role in improving air quality in the Bay Area. ( If one out of 10 car commuters would switch to walking or biking, we’d reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 25.4 million tons a year. (

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