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The Key to a Happy Commute Isn’t What We Think It Is

Trend analyst Matt Carmichael weighs in on the results from a study out of McGill University's School of Urban Planning.

By Matt Carmichael on December 26, 2016

A 2014 study out of Canada reaffirmed what a lot of urbanists believe: driving cars to work is a crappy way to commute and makes people unhappy. Further, walking, taking commuter rail and biking to work were the happiest forms of transportation.


And no one likes to ride the bus.

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The study, lead by Evelyne St-Louis at the McGill University’s School of Urban Planning and published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, used surveys to gauge the happiness of commuters who commute solely by various forms of transit. Subway users fared only slightly better than bus riders.

Having read through the study and run some comments and questions by Ms. St.-Louis, here are some take-aways:

  • Driving isn’t as horrible as it generally gets made out to be. It’s solidly in the middle of the pack, and considering that it is by far the most common commuting mode, it’s good that it doesn’t make absolutely everyone miserable all the time.
  • An interesting measure included in the survey is: “mean additional time budgeted,” which looks at how much buffer time people build in to their commutes to make sure they arrive on time. Drivers added in an average of 17 minutes, more than three times as much as bikers and walkers, and significantly more than the subway and train riders. Bus riders added in 14 minutes each way.
  • If people were commuting in the means they most wanted to (e.g. drivers who want to drive, bikers who want to bike), they were happier.

It’s all about consistency

Reading between the lines, I think you can make an argument that the mode of commuting isn’t nearly as important as the consistency of the commute. If you walk, bike or take commuter rail, you know essentially exactly how long it will take you to get to work and how much it will cost day-to-day. Subway and bus riders have little control over the time it will take them but at least know the cost. Drivers in many traffic-plagued areas have no control over the length of their drive and also have little control over gas prices. The cost of their commute can vary widely one month to the next.

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Another study showed that while high gas prices lead to increased public support for mass-transit funding, it was actually price volatility that mattered more. People like to know what something is going to cost, and when that starts bouncing all over the place, people start looking for alternatives. It’s helpful, therefore, if they have them.

This study does reaffirm this to some degree. It states, “In fact, bus users and drivers show significantly lower satisfaction the more additional time is budgeted for. The bus is the only mode for which all of the trip and time characteristics variables are significant. This may explain why bus users were found to be the least satisfied commuter: their satisfaction depends on external elements mainly out of their control.”

Here’s another possible reason: bus and subway riders have to deal with other passengers, often smashed up against them. I’ve seen guys in tanktops raising their sweaty arms to grab the hand-rail and other passengers basically shoved into their arm pits. No one will be happy by that subway commute. Drivers lack consistency and control, but maybe they’re marginally happier than public transit riders because they at least control the music they listen to and don’t have to put up with other human beings.

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The other factor, obviously, is the time it takes to commute. Charles Montgomery, the author of The Happy City, told me that length of commute was one of the key determiners in happiness. This study backs up that claim. People who commute by car, on average, spend far less time than public transportation riders.

So, what do I think what should we take from this study?

First, because people are happy when they commute however they choose, cities should give them options.

Second, cities should invest in public transportation. The goals should be to add consistency to the service. That might mean more dedicated bus lanes. That might mean more bus-tracking apps so people can at least cut down on some of the “additional” time they budget.

And finally, for the drivers among us, finding ways to ease congestion at both the surface street and highway level, so the drive time might become more consistent, would go a long way toward taking some of the rage out of being on the road.

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