Health burden of the daily commute

Photo of commuters in London

Jenny RobertsResearch by Professor Jennifer Roberts from the Department of Economics, former PhD student Dr Luke Munford from the University of Manchester and Professor Nigel Rice from the University of York.

Commuting places a significant constraint on the time-use of many working people. Over the recent past, average commuting times have risen in a number of developed countries and it has long been recognised that the burden of the daily commute is potentially detrimental to health and wellbeing. This research measures the burden of commuting by removing the effects of other factors that influence commuting decisions, such as quality of housing, neighbourhood effects and job characteristics.

Results indicate an increase in commuting time reduces wellbeing. For example, if an individual’s one-way commute increased by 10 minutes, their wellbeing is reduced, and the size of this effect is statistically significant.

When we consider men and women separately, we only observe significant reductions in wellbeing for women, and not for men. A 10 minute increase in female commuting time reduces their wellbeing by just under 1/10, to put this in practical terms this is about two-thirds of the wellbeing loss for a woman becoming unemployed.

When we consider self-reported general health, we again only observe a statistically significant reduction for women, and not for men. A half-an-hour increase in commuting time reduces female health by around 1/20 of the effect of the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.

To achieve meaningful gains in health and wellbeing sizeable falls in commuting times are required.

Researchers, professor Jennifer roberts, dr luke munford and professor nigel rice

The study also considers the effect of mode of travel, exploring differences between (i) car users; (ii) public transport users; and (iii) active commuters (who walk or cycle). For car users, increases in commuting times reduce both health and wellbeing for females, but not for males. There are no health and wellbeing penalties associated with longer commutes amongst public transport users for either men or women. Amongst those who walk or cycle, there are reductions in wellbeing for women, but not for men. There are no health penalties associated with longer commutes for active commuters.

In all cases, we find that it is those individuals with the shorter commutes (below the median) who are negatively affected by increases in their commuting time.

One possible explanation is that it is relative changes in commuting times which matter most. For example, consider two similar individuals with initial commutes of 15 minutes for individual A and 60 minutes for individual B. If individual A and B experience a ten minute increase in their commuting time then the percentage increase in commute time for individual A is greater than that of individual B, and hence individual A’s health and wellbeing suffers more.

An interesting finding from the study is that it is consistently only women who suffer from increased commutes, and not men. One explanation is that women, on average, have shorter commutes. A second speculative explanation is that women perform a greater share of household tasks, and hence the opportunity cost of commuting (time that cannot be spent doing other things) is greater for females than for males. However further work is needed to determine exactly why these gender differences exist.

The research findings highlight the importance of commuting time for health and wellbeing. Policies which improve transport networks, and hence reduce commuting times, will improve the health and wellbeing of females but not men. However, the findings suggest that to achieve meaningful gains in health and wellbeing sizeable falls in commuting times are required.

This article was originally published in the Understanding Society report Insights 2015; the fourth annual report of research that depicts the changing lives of individuals and households in the UK.