Smarter commuting is commuting that is good for our health and wellbeing. What this means won’t be the same for everyone but commutes that are physically active, commutes during which we can do something worthwhile and commutes where we have the opportunity to choose from a mix of options are ingredients of smarter commuting.
We have recently completed a research project examining the link between commuting and wellbeing and based on this, and other research, we give our view on what constitutes smarter commuting. For further details about the research we mention please see our Commuting & Wellbeing study report.
A good way to judge what is a smart commute is to look at people’s satisfaction with their commute. Studies tend to show that commute satisfaction is highest for walking or cycling to work, lowest for public transport and somewhere in the middle for car commuting. It has also been shown that longer commute times are associated with lower commute satisfaction - more on which we will say shortly.
Those commuters who believe that their journey to/from work has value beyond arriving at the destination have higher commute satisfaction, as do those that talk with other passengers (for those using public transport). This demonstrates the value of spending commuting in a worthwhile way. An interesting finding from a study of commuters in Beijing is that greater flexibility over the transport mode they use was associated with higher commute satisfaction.
It is useful to know what influences satisfaction of the commute itself but what about the link between commuting and broader health and wellbeing? This is what our study examined. Our study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, took advantage of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study which tracks the lives of a large, representative sample of households in England. This survey tracks different aspects of wellbeing, including health, strain and job satisfaction. The data set allowed us to examine how changes in different aspects of wellbeing from one year to the next were related to changing commuting circumstances for more than 26,000 workers in England over a five-year period.
We found that, all else being equal, every extra minute of commuting time reduces job satisfaction, reduces leisure time satisfaction, increases strain in people’s lives and worsens mental health.
The effects of commuting on employee wellbeing were found to vary depending on the mode of transport used to get to work:
1. Those who walk or cycle to work do not report reductions in leisure time satisfaction in the same way as other commuters, even with the same duration of commute. This implies that active commuting is seen as a beneficial use of time for getting exercise and relaxation. Other studies have shown the benefit of active commuting to physical health.
2. Bus commuters feel the negative impacts of longer journey times more strongly than users of other modes of transport. This could relate to the complexity of longer journeys by bus.
3. Meanwhile, longer duration commutes by rail are associated with less strain than shorter commutes by rail. We think this is explained by those on longer rail journeys being more likely to get a seat and to have comfortable conditions to relax or even to work.
4. Those who work from home are found to have higher job satisfaction and leisure time satisfaction, although we must acknowledge that working from home is not possible for everyone on a daily basis.
Our findings have particularly important implications for employers. An additional 20 minutes of commuting each day was found (on average) to have the equivalent effect on job satisfaction as a 19% reduction in income – this is a loss of £4,080 per annum for someone earning £21,600 (the median value for our sample). We found a gender difference for this result with longer commute times having a more negative impact on women’s job satisfaction than men’s. This is likely to be related to the greater household and family responsibilities that women tend to have. We also found that employees with longer commute times are more likely to change job, and this has implications for employee retention.
The overall message for employers is that job satisfaction can be improved if workers have opportunities to reduce their time spent commuting, to work from home and to walk or cycle to work – such commuting opportunities are likely to be good news for employee wellbeing and retention and hence reduce costs to businesses.
These options are unlikely to be available to employees every day, but being able to adopt them occasionally is likely to be beneficial. A study we undertook of commuters in North Bristol found that three out of ten commuters mix the modes of transport they use to get to work over a week and that changes in commuting behaviour over time are much more likely to involve partial transitions than full switches of transport mode (that is commuting a bit differently rather than completely changing how we get to work). Such transitions were found to be much more likely if commuters were aware of recent improvements to transport alternatives. So making employees aware of the options available to them and facilitating them in trying them out is what smarter commuting is all about.
The Commuting & Wellbeing study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (Grant Number ES/N012429/1). The project was led by Dr Kiron Chatterjee at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and ran for eighteen months from February 2016 to July 2017. A summary report from the study is available at https://travelbehaviour.com/outputs-commuting-wellbeing/