Are we being driven over the edge?

Caught in traffic.

Traffic congestion and grinding commutes cause stress, unhappiness, lost productivity and ill health.

It seems what most people dislike about work has nothing to do with their job: it’s just getting there.

Before they even start work, tempers fray and stress levels peak – all because of the daily commute. Not exactly a good frame of mind in which to begin the working day.

Lengthening commuting times are having a negative effect globally on national economies and people’s happiness and health. Commuting is among the daily activities most harmful to our happiness, say Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer.

They have identified a common but misguided trade-off many people make: choosing to live in a big house in the suburbs. People think this will make them happier, but it forces them into a long commute that instead makes them more miserable. “People with a lengthy distance to and from work do not report increased satisfaction with their dwelling and report even lower satisfaction with their job,” the economists wrote in a paper on commuting and life satisfaction.

Frey and Stutzer calculate that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to work.

Australians now spend more time commuting than they do on holiday, according to an NRMA survey published in August. When the motoring association surveyed 720 of its members, it found nearly a quarter spent 90 minutes travelling to and from work and a third spent up to an hour.

In Beijing a university has clocked the average time it takes residents to get to work at 43.6 minutes. Transport infrastructure is struggling to keep pace with demand and a growing middle class has increased the number of cars on the roads. Beijing is working on doubling the size of its subway system by 2015 at a projected cost of RMB331.2 billion.

Last year, City of Sydney Council concluded what everyone else knew: the city is grinding to a halt. Congestion costs Sydney about A$4.6 billion a year, a figure projected to rise to A$8 billion by 2020. The reasons for Sydney’s poor showing is the same as in Beijing.

John Hawkins, smarter transportation industry expert at IBM Australia, says: “The daily commute in Australia’s biggest cities is longer and more painful than ever. It reflects the reality that our transport infrastructure is not keeping pace with continuing economic growth in this country. Building more roads is not enough to solve these issues.”

There are few things more wasteful of energy and time as urban commuting in driver-only, driver-owned cars; nor are there many activities as stressful. The reason, says Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert, is you can’t adapt to commuting because it’s entirely unpredictable.

“Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day,” Gilbert says. As a result, he explains, we don’t habituate to rush-hour suffering. Vinodh Swaminathan, director of intelligent transportation systems, IBM, says this is one reason commuters are turning to public transport. Of people surveyed in 20 cities around the world, 41 per cent believe that better public transport would reduce traffic congestion.

Cities can justify spending on improving transport for economic reasons alone. Reducing congestion by 10 per cent typically leads to a 3 per cent increase in productivity and a 2 per cent increase in economic output, reports Swaminathan.

"People with a lengthy distance to and from work do not report increased satisfaction with their dwelling and report even lower satisfaction with their job." – Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer

Some businesses have realised they can be part of the solution. When telecommunications giant Optus relocated to Sydney’s Macquarie Park, 12km north-west of the CBD, they knew travelling there would be an issue for staff, so they established a transport team led by Andrew Parks, employee experience and transport manager for Optus.

Five years on, Parks’ job hasn’t disappeared, it just keeps evolving. “Employees said they valued what we were doing,” he says. A combination of an incentivised ride-share scheme that puts staff in touch with each other to share cars, shuttle buses to connect with trains and major transport hubs, a personal journey planner who sits down with employees to discuss options and a car share service for employees to travel to appointments during lunch hours are all examples of how Optus is getting employees to use more sustainable modes of transport.

“We are constantly monitoring how our staff get to work with monthly surveys and internal marketing campaigns,” Parks says. It has led to behavioural changes, with 45 per cent of employees walking, cycling or using public transport to commute. Survey results are also helping to inform local and state government transport planning in the area on such things as cycling paths and bus services.

Other Australian employers are following suit, but the burden of long commutes will keep making people unhappy for a while yet.

Car sickness

“We put our health second. To have a big house, we’re willing to put up with smog and a big drive. We sacrifice our longevity for short-term gains.” So says David Rizzo, author of Survive the Drive! How to Beat Freeway Traffic in Southern California.

It’s not just the pollution and it’s not just southern California. People who drive long distances are more likely to be overweight than their colleagues with short commutes who don’t use a car. The more people drive, the less they exercise and the higher a driver’s blood pressure, according to a Washington University study.

Stress is the most likely cause. In Australia, 81 per cent of drivers told an IBM survey they were stressed by commuting, with 39 per cent saying it had a negative effect on their performance at work, school or university. Sydneysiders suffer the most, while only 28 per cent in Adelaide and Perth complained of ill‑effects.

Journeys to hell and back

  • India’s rail network carries 20 million people daily.
  • In Mexico City, the world’s most populous metropolis, some commuters have a round trip of four hours.
  • In Jakarta, commuters routinely ride on top of overcrowded trains. 
  • In Tokyo, trains average eight million travellers each day.
  • The Russian Federal Highway has recorded the coldest temperatures outside Antarctica because of permafrost. During the 10-month winters it’s covered in heavy ice and snow, then for two months the road becomes a notorious traffic-bound, muddy quagmire.
  • Honolulu has overtaken Los Angeles as the worst US city for traffic. Listing the US’s top 10 for terrible traffic, data provider INRIX estimates that if a driver uses any of them during rush hour “they will spend nearly three weeks per year stuck in traffic and could ride a bicycle faster to work”.
  • On the bright side, traffic congestion in the US last year  dropped by a huge 30 per cent from 2011 levels. Key reasons include higher fuel prices and unemployment.

Source: 2011 IBM Australian Commuter Pain survey and INRIX.

This article is from the November 2012 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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