Transportation

'Weighting Mistake' Leads to Long Commutes and Daily Misery

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 15, 2010

Commuting makes us miserable - so miserable, in fact, that it more than offsets the happiness we get from bigger houses in suburban locations that require us to commute. So why do so many people do it?

Jonah Lehrer over at Scienceblogs has a promising answer. First, he documents what economists Brun Frey and Alois Stutzer call "the commuters paradox":

They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.

Of course, as [David] Brooks notes, that time in traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day.

To understand why people buy into commuting arrangements that make them miserable, Lehrer cites psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands:

Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute.

"People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad."

What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity.

The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."

Dijksterhuis describes this as a "weighting mistake", in which people considering the alternatives over-state the comparatively rare opportunities to take advantage of a big yard while under-stating the daily aggravation of a long commute.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his essays have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on twitter.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 14:09:53

Reminds me of the joke about the King who had to choose between three brides so he gave them a test. Only one of them passed with flying colours, so naturally he chose the one with the big t*ts.

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 14:45:21

Yup.

Value system changes are a real challenge.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 14:45:54

Read an article recently about how many people make this choice because they don't actually want to be happy, that they view the relative happiness of urban dwellers as hedonistic. It was an interesting perspective on the 'weighting' decision - it may not be a 'mistake' at all, the resulting misery may be intentional. I'd link to the article, but damned if I can find it again.

Comment edited by highwater on 2010-04-15 13:47:06

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 15:31:35

Hmm... 'Misery' as a societal choice.

Now THAT sounds like an article...

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By z jones (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 15:35:24

Gotta pump that Protestant Work Ethic. Joy is for Godless bohemians and hellbound heretics.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 15:40:24

^Yup. Needless to say, it was an American article, where identity politics play a larger role in consumer choices. Wish I could find the article. Will keep looking.

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By ? (anonymous) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 16:49:11

You should consider that in a lot of cases, it takes less time to drive to an urban centre from the 'suburbs' than it does if one lives much closer to work. Just this year, I found out that it takes a coworker from Toronto who lives 12km away from work 45 mins to get to work everyday. I have a friend who is commuting from Ancaster to Toronto (approx 60km) for work everyday and his drive takes 40 mins. It seems to me like it might actually be more convenient to live in the suburbs...just saying.

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By d.knox (registered) | Posted April 15, 2010 at 19:15:22

I hate my job so much that the time I spend alone in my car, driving on fairly quiet roads (not to Toronto) is the most pleasant part of working. Sigh. I really need a career change.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 09:41:57

This whole premise is sort of weakly constructed and includes very broad generalizations.

What if, like me, you're an urban city resident that has to commute because there are no jobs in their city??? Should I move to the suburbs to be happy?

I lived in downtown TO did the transit commuter thing, to get to work it usually took me about an hour each way and most days I couldn't even sit down... it was worse than my current commute.

People make their choices and people decide if they're happy or not with those choices. Life is full of compromises, the suburban lifestyle is one that many people are willing to make sacrifices for. To assume they're all miserable because of it is a bit of a stretch. Do they like they're commute, probably not, but did the people that did this study ask any follow up questions? Maybe the person commuting would have been more miserable if they were stuck in a small 2 or 3 bedroom downtown condo.

This cracks me up though:

"The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year

What data did they crunch to come up with the statistic that people will only need to use the bathroom at the same time as someone else 2 or 3 days a year???

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 12:04:02

I can't help but feel a little (perversely) bemused by the discussion surrounding this subject, namely: what amounts to addressing a badly-designed wheel. It got that way for understandable reasons, each element perfectly explainable in retrospect...because of circumstances being so varied, because of endless contributions by maybe unaligned 'forces', the result is...badly-designed.

What's bemusing is how the various factions (actually, it's really only 'anti-' factions, because people tend to not make noise about the status quo...unless they've moved into the 'anti-' camp, which means they're no longer silent...) see this flawed product (the realities of long commutes, of the associated Life-strain, the effects on the environment, yadda, yadda, yadda), rev up their umbrage machines, and...and...

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of throwing out the square-wheel-that's-had-endless-compensatory-features-applied and starting over. Not only that, but the primary reasons that people don't live where they work are a) they can't get the living circumstances they've come to believe they need in order to have the life they believe they want, and b) there's no 'suitable' work where they've chosen (for whatever reasons) to live.

Add to this that everything attached to our dilemma is in motion. It's virtually impossible to apply a solution on-the-go; it's akin to attempting to thread a sewing needle while riding a mountain bike over rough terrain...while reciting the capitals of the provinces and territories...alphabetically. Backwards. In iambic pentameter. While having rocks tossed at you.

: )

So even if practical solutions could be offered by the 'anti-' factions (and they tend not to be; what's offered is more 'this is how things should be!' rhetoric), the fact is that there's too much momentum, there's too much at play, there are simply too many disparate ramifications to even attempting to rejig our wonderfully-flawed wheel. Never mind the fact that there's really no vision being brought into the process, too much cronyism, too much partisan-politics, too many elements that really don't have the common good (a properly-working, pleasant-to-use 'wheel') in mind.

From my vantage point, less energies need to be expended on whingeing about the state of things, about how many egregious errors have been made by scurrilous players over the years, and more applied to making things-as-they-are, better. Otherwise, what we're stuck with is a strangely compelling admixture of circle-jerk and mudslinging. On-the-fly.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 16, 2010 at 12:27:38

here are simply too many disparate ramifications to even attempting to rejig our wonderfully-flawed wheel

Sorry, but I have to call BS on: a) your defeatism, b) your claim that trying to understand how we got where we are is an indulgent waste of time, and c) your claim that people trying to change our car-dependent system want to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Here are some things we can do right away that will start to move us incrementally from where we currently find ourselves and cost nothing or very little:

  1. Stop building new highways and widening existing highways. Just stop. If we keep building and widening highways, we'll keep inducing demand to commute long distances on them.

  2. Throw out low-density, single use zoning rules and replace them with form-based codes. We don't need to invent form-based codes from scratch; they're already in operation and battle-tested in a number of North American markets.

  3. Start to implement modest congestion pricing on highways. Stream the revenues right into improving the frequency, price and speed of regional commuter transit.

  4. Paint some yellow lines down the middle of our one-way streets. Granted, this will cost some money for paint and for turning some traffic lights to face the other way.

  5. Paint more yellow lines along the sides of our streets so cyclists have a dedicated place to ride.

  6. Change the municipal property tax system so that property owners are no longer rewarded for knocking down buildings and punished for investing.

  7. Take the money currently going into greenfield development and re-direct it into brownfield remediation.

And that's just off the top of my head.

The best part is that there are several jurisdictions right here in North America that have done these things and are enjoying great economic, social and cultural benefits as a direct result. We don't have to make it up from scratch, and we don't have to guess blindly at what will happen when we start to do it.

Or we could continue to complain that there's all this momentum pushing us in a different direction and we should just accept that.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 13:26:34

I'm torn on this one... both Ryan and Schmadrian make some good points. I understand Schmadrian's somewhat cynical view but I share Ryan's opinion that we can still do something. But just "doing things" isn't necessarily going to make things better.

We do need to make the shift and simply stopping some of what we are currently doing (i.e., widening highways) and promoting (i.e., new car purchase incentives) is a start. But as I posted in your other article Ryan this is where dealing with the truth, facts and reality is crucial. If we don't deal within that frame work than we are doomed to fail and when people can't even understand the(unfortunately) vital component to our society and economy the car currently plays than good luck making decisions that will work. We need to put down the biased studies and reports, the "lies, damn lies and statistics" and deal with reality if we hope to accomplish anything positive.

The bike-lobby needs to clue in to the current importance and cash cow status of the car in our society and economy - personal transportation and specifically the car is a major driving force of our economy (no pun intended) that hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs within our city alone depend on the car and the pro-car people need to clue in that we can't just keep doing what we're doing, we can't just build more roads for an increasing population and their personal transportation needs, we can't keep burning fuel in our vehicles, alternative modes and means need to be found. The vocal minorities on the fringes need to cool the rhetoric and move to the middle… that's where the majority of people are sitting and waiting for real solutions to be presented.

So I agree with Ryan, we can and must do something… but I have a hunch that Schmadrian's analogy of the challenges ahead of us:

attempting to thread a sewing needle while riding a mountain bike over rough terrain...while reciting the capitals of the provinces and territories...alphabetically. Backwards. In iambic pentameter. While having rocks tossed at you."

...is probably accurate to.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-04-16 12:31:49

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 16:38:17

"The vocal minorities on the fringes need to cool the rhetoric and move to the middle… that's where the majority of people are sitting and waiting for real solutions to be presented."

One challenge is, that actually being in the middle is interpreted as extreme due to the spectrum being incredibly shifted off balance.

Consider:

  • Adding a bike lane to a road is met with much of the same anger as though the road was being closed to cars completely.

  • Many billions for unending widening of highways and overpasses (which are usually just as crowded afterward as before) are okay, while a relatively few billion for transit projects which would move them forward massively are being cut.

  • People who ARE trying to intelligently articulate a MIDDLE ground position are being shouted down as fascist extremists who want to take us back to the horse and buggy and outlaw motorized personal conveyance.

Consider:

  • One GO train full of people can potentially displace 2000 cars. It's astounding to see the QEW packed solid both ways during times when no trains run out of Hamilton. They sure look good sitting there parked on the tracks. Our motivation into improving this is pitiful at best. Thus people "never ride transit because it takes all day to get somewhere" and the self-fulfilling feedback loop continues.

  • Many cities have balanced modes of transport much better. The astute observer will notice that Communists did not take away everyone's car. You can still drive if you want or need to. But there are alternatives that are facilitated, hence safer, healthier, and convenient.

Weird phase of civilization this is! Trying to shift BACK toward some balance is seen as extremism. /headstillasploding!

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2010-04-16 15:40:39

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 16:57:54

Like the post mikeonthemountain.

Can you maybe clarify this part a little more for me:

One challenge is, that actually being in the middle is interpreted as extreme due to the spectrum being incredibly shifted off balance.

I've heard other people say this same thing with often vastly different meanings.

They sure look good sitting there parked on the tracks.

Are you talking at Willowbrook maintenance yard and/or outposts?

Often they are there for maintenance and inspection. Transport Canada has very strict rules for air brake tests and inspections. Basically if you want to maintain peak commuter rail traffic all day you would need almost a complete extra set of consists, that's just the way it is.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-04-16 15:58:08

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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 17:06:58

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted April 16, 2010 at 17:20:39

"spectrum being incredibly shifted off balance."

Sure, I'll have a try at clarification. Expressions like the following are case in point:

  • "bike-lobby needs to clue in" : there is no bike lobby (a small one maybe) that I'm aware of, unless by lobby you mean individuals to whom this is a meaningful issue. I am not part of a lobby, I am very much thinking and acting on my own. If that is the case, the the automotive lobby is an elephant and the bike lobby is a mouse. Car makers were not allowed to sink or swim on their own merits and the free market they claim to be. They received billions from the government. There is documented (Google it, I have enough work to do today) conspiracy of motor industries destroying electrified trolley/LRT transit within cities. Where exactly is the heavyweight lobbying?

  • "We need to put down the biased studies and reports" : Which studies would those be? The ones that illustrate successful case studies of balancing modes of transportation, citing cities where it is working, giving us examples of some working solutions and ideas? Or would it be the studies that find ever stronger links between traffic exhaust and asthma/allergy rates? What part of dirty air may cause death is fake exactly?

  • "deal with reality" : That is exactly what is being attempted. Pollution kills people. Roads cannot be widened to infinity. Population cannot continue growing, with everyone in a single occupant vehicle, while maintaining adequate room and maintainability. Einstein's definition of insanity is attempting the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

"Are you talking at Willowbrook maintenance yard and/or outposts?"

No I'm not talking about trains in yards undergoing inspection. That is obvious that trains go to yards to be inspected and maintained. I'm talking about the GO trains that sit on the tracks in Hamilton above the Hunter street terminal, waiting for the next sliver of time (between 6:12AM and 7:17AM) when they are graciously permitted through. GO wants to run all day trains across the GTA but are being held back due to lack of track time. While we bitch and moan and widen highways, others have built dedicated commuter tracks and electrified them. Have you seen the MASSIVE roadworks that are ongoing? Think the same can't be done to put in another track? Of course it can, you just have to want to! Metrolinx wanted to electrify the GO corridor!

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2010-04-16 16:26:56

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By sleeplessinhamilton (registered) | Posted April 18, 2010 at 00:24:02

I moved to Hamilton several months ago to get out of the suburbs, to expose myself to “life” rather than hide in the fantasy land where nothing bad ever goes on. Also I got a really nice house for dirt cheap.

I can attest that commuting is a grueling task, an absolutely horrible way to start your morning and end a long work day. I commuted to Mississauga from Hamilton for the past several months and before that it was from Burlington or Oakville, there were some days I just wanted to call it quits but had to drudgingly push on in order to save up enough for a down payment and to pay the bills. It was a good paying job the best I ever had and without a post secondary education it would be hard to find one right away that would pay as much.

However many of my family and friends would refuse to live in downtown Hamilton not just because they subconsciously want to cause themselves pain or that they underestimated the weight of the commute but because they have children and want larger backyards and quieter streets or more so because of the safety issues that come with living downtown. You may make yourself believe that it's safe as anything and some of their fears are unwarranted (there are some very nice and safe neighborhoods in the downtown core) but you can't deny that there are some very “interesting” characters down town.

Can they really be blamed then? If they can afford to live in a much safer community with much bigger yards, where houses are in better condition and they are almost guaranteed a return on this investment. I wouldn't say that they made a mistake I would say it was an obvious choice for them.

They take the positives with the negatives and I think they weigh their choices out quite seriously. Maybe they self-sacrificially lay down their own desire for “joy” so that their children can grow up in an environment where they can play street hockey or walk down the street without coming across a used needle or explain why that strange man just yelled profanities at them. Maybe maybe their wiser then we think they are and maybe we aren't as smart and more enlightened then we think we are.

Not to mention that if everyone all of a sudden moved downtown that prices would skyrocket and I wouldn't be able to afford a place to live. So SHH!

Comment edited by sleeplessinhamilton on 2010-04-17 23:26:10

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 20, 2010 at 17:28:37

People will stop commuting when the price is too high. Ignore what they say in surveys or how much they whine. My friend has been commuting too Toronto for 25 years. For over 20 of those years I have heard him complain about the commute and how he is going to switch to the Go Train. Yet he still drives every day. I do not think he wants to be unhappy, people just like to complain. He likes his house in Ancaster, he is happy with his lifestyle he, like many of us, just needs something to complain about. When the cost of commuting gets too high people will find alternatives. I do not feel it is up to you me or anybody else to impose their own value judgments on him or others and tell tell him he is wrong. No more than he should tell you that you are wrong for wanting to raise your kids downtown. A choice I find very puzzling, but it is your choice to make.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 20, 2010 at 19:07:41

People will stop commuting when the price is too high. Ignore what they say in surveys or how much they whine.

I'm inclined to agree with this, and in fact made the corollary argument recently that people who would not respond to an argument posted on a website will nevertheless respond to incentives.

I would modify your statement, Mr. Meister, to the following:

People will stop commuting when the price is too high relative to alternatives.

During the great run-up in oil prices through the latter half of the past decade, the growth rate of driving in North America slowed, then stalled, and then went into reverse.

Between 2007 and 2008, during a time when the economy was still growing, driving actually fell by more than 5% while transit use increased 10% (buoyed in significant part by new LRT constructions during that time) and cycling increased by a similar amount.

By the way, I don't think it's wrong to live in the suburbs and commute. I do think it's wrong to live in the suburbs and commute and expect that choice to be subsidized out of the general tax fund.

I'm all for subsidizing public goods, like universal education and health care, that generate more overall social value than they cost to provide, but I can't in good conscience support public subsidies for private goods that impose negative externalities on society as a whole.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-04-20 18:10:23

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 22, 2010 at 15:38:55

Thanks for clarifying mikeonthemountain. I've just heard that terminology used by certain "family focused" groups before.

"We need to put down the biased studies and reports" : Which studies would those be? - mikeonthemountain

Ever hear of the Fraser Insitute? How about the Prius vs Hummer life cycle cost report? Plenty of biased slant to the world Mike.

"deal with reality" : That is exactly what is being attempted. - mikeonthemountain

What I mean is people need to deal with the reality of what is going to be needed to meet the challenges you describe. I don't believe that is as cut and dry as "pollution kills people" yes that is reality but what is it going to take to change, that's where it often falls apart, where disagreement occurs and polar extreme politics clash, grinding the whole thing to a halt and solving nothing.

GO trains that sit on the tracks in Hamilton above the Hunter street terminal, waiting for the next sliver of time (between 6:12AM and 7:17AM) when they are graciously permitted through. GO wants to run all day trains across the GTA but are being held back due to lack of track time. - mikeonthemountain

I hear ya' they should have better access to tracks but CN and CP own the tracks GO runs on, freight comes first it is the track owners' life blood and is also important because it keeps trucks off the roads. To build a dedicated commuter rail line will take land acquisitions, studies, debate (just look at the Airport Rail Link debacle) and most of all money. Years ago small spur lines ran all over Ontario, now many have been sold off, at least some saw noble uses like bike/walking trails. We'll need to buy back what we once had in order to expand rail throughout the province.

Electrifying the line isn't a simple thing either. New signals, track, maintenance facilities, underpasses, station improvements are all required. The study done in 2008 for just the lakeshore line revealed the electrification and expansion to be a can of worms (lots of unanswered questions) with the cost being $1 billion (increasing yearly of course). If you read it carefully you see where we are going to have enough trouble meeting future ridership demands maintaining the status quo let alone improving the service to an electric commuter rail dedicated service.

This is where reality comes in again. Building commuter rail, LRT, electrifying rail lines, revamping entire cities to be more livable, while still maintaining current infrastructure being used to capacity, all in a province heading toward "have not status", run by clowns who can't even get a database built without huge cost overruns and with the Tories having a good shot of taking office is going to be very difficult.

Just look at today's Toronto Sun (please don't buy it ; ) and read the nonsense about bike lanes on University Ave. (e.g., "How will ambulances get to the hospital when they have to cross bike lanes"???) to see the challenges moving to a more balanced society faces. I agree the status quo lobby is an elephant but a mouse screaming at an elephant about things it doesn't want to hear isn't going to find a solution. Mice scare elephants : )

Lots of challenges ahead Mike we need to find common ground among a larger group of people to solve them and that will require more measured approaches and compromise than I have seen people willing to make. That's my opinion anyway and you'll see many of my posts addressing that issue. Sometimes that requires a bit of a devil's advocate approach (and the ensuing flame fest that follows : ) to get people thinking about their preconceived notions.

Comment edited by Kiely on 2010-04-22 14:41:15

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 22, 2010 at 15:47:10

"Maybe maybe their wiser then we think they are and maybe we aren't as smart and more enlightened then we think we are." -sleeplessinhamilton

I like your attitude sleepless!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted April 22, 2010 at 15:54:50

By the way, I don't think it's wrong to live in the suburbs and commute. I do think it's wrong to live in the suburbs and commute and expect that choice to be subsidized out of the general tax fund. - Ryan

Careful there Ryan, if you don't want to subsidize people for the way they live, they may feel the same way about you. After all "overall social value" can be a subjective thing. Do you not realise it is your perception of "overall social value" and others may completely disagree?

Person A: "Why should I subsidize roads?" Person B: "Why should I subsidize bike lanes?" And back and forth ad nauseum...

This is the type of thinking that needs to be eliminated from both sides. It is us and them type rhetoric, creates animosity and solves nothing.

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