Sick of Long Commutes

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 30, 2011

A recent Slate article takes yet another look at the health toll - both physical and psychological - of the long commute.

Depression, stress, obesity, chronic pain, insomnia: they all correlate positively with commuting time. Obesity in particular correlates more strongly with long commutes than any other single factor. Longer commutes even correlate with higher divorce rates for couples: 40% higher in commutes of 45 minutes or longer.

If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii). You are not doing any of the things that make human beings happy.

The evidence also strongly suggests that it is the length of the commute itself that correlates with the negative effects, not the overall length of the workday:

Take a worker with a negligible commute and a 12-hour workday and a worker with an hourlong commute and a 10-hour workday. The former will have healthier habits than the latter, even though total time spent on the relatively stressful, unpleasant tasks is equal.

The essay closes by addressing the well-known weighting mistake that leads people to over-estimate the happiness they will get from a more distant suburban house while simultaneously under-estimating the misery they will get from a long commute:

Isn't the big house and the time to listen to the whole Dylan catalog worth something as well? Sure, researchers say, but not enough when it comes to the elusive metric of happiness. Given the choice between that cramped apartment and the big house, we focus on the tangible gains offered by the latter. We can see that extra bedroom. We want that extra bathtub. But we do not often use them. And we forget that additional time in the car is a constant, persistent, daily burden—if a relatively invisible one.

Do not take it lightly. People who say, "My commute is killing me!" are not exaggerators. They are realists.

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. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 30, 2011 at 14:18:13

Allegedly, commutes around Toronto are some of the worst on the continent, if not planet. Worse than Los Angeles and New York.

Nothing like an hour or say of unpaid time lost per workday, especially when it happens in a rapidly depreciating gas guzzler on roads which cost hundred of millions.

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By Freedom Seeker (anonymous) | Posted May 31, 2011 at 00:43:39

As is almost always the case when we see something as distorted from common sense as the commuters dilemma it pays to start by considering the possibility that we are seeing a predictable result of peoples responses to the actions of Government. In this case, and in no particular order:

- Zoning bylaws, official plans, etc which make it illegal for businesses and residences to locate close together.
- Property tax laws which, by taxing suburbs and exburbs at lower rates than city centres provide an incentive for sprawl.
- The public road and highway system. If roads were privately owned, and as a consequence required the payment of tolls to use, powerful incentives for more compact forms of development would be created.
- Large and multifarious subsidies government subsidy of the oil industry
- The public health care system. Since an individual is insulated from the costs of the consequences of unhealthy lifestyle choices, in this case long commutes, the financial motivator of reducing their health care bills by choosing a healthier way of living is not present.

And so it goes. Show me central planning enforced at gunpoint I'll show you a mess...

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By myrcurial (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2011 at 08:32:54

And we're left with a real problem...

It doesn't matter whether you live in Toronto or Hamilton - the commute time is nearly the same.

I have the kind of job that tends to only materialize in downtown Toronto. We like to have a 3+1 bedroom house with a yard as our preferred accommodation - that's what suits our family of 5. Here's a selection of options from where we've lived over the last decade:

Living at Bathurst and Lawrence - commute was 20 minutes walking, 45 minutes on a subway standing, 10 minutes walking - door to door in 75 minutes. Cost of housing 3x Hamilton, cost of transit ~$100. Call it $3100/month.

Living in Mississauga (what a mistake) - commute was 15 minutes driving or 45 minutes on Mississauga Transit, 50 minutes on GO Train, 10 minutes walking - door to door in 75 to 120 minutes. Cost of housing 2x Hamilton, cost of transit only option ~$300, you can figure out the cost of adding a car to save 30 minutes a day. Without a car, call it $2300/month. Then be realistic and realize you need a car to live in Mississauga and add another (insurance and fuel only - we'll let you drive a winter beater to the GO station, although nearly no one does) $500 a month bringing you up to $2800/month.

Living in The Hammer - commute is 15 minutes on HSR, 65 minutes on GO Train, 10 minutes walking - door to door in 90 minutes. Cost of housing 1x Hamilton, cost of transit ~$300. That's going to cost out at $1300/month.

The only way to really reduce the commute is to change the type of housing that we're willing to put our family into... live much closer to the core and deal with the fact that we'll have a 3 bedroom apartment which monthly costs about what we spend on housing every 4-5 months in Hamilton... and that will drop my commute to around 30 minutes with ~$100 in transit. That's (round figures) $5000/month plus the costs of not being in preferred housing.

The real benefit of commuting - especially in a single income family like ours with my weird kind of job that simply doesn't exist in Hamilton - is not just the raw cost of living closer - it's that a couple of hours a day of my life can be converted into thousands of dollars in recouped income - when I'm sitting on the GO train, I'm making between $84 ((5000-1300)/44) and $34 ((2800-1300)/44) an hour. That's pretty decent wages.

Like every working parent throughout time - my job is to provide for my family through the slow attrition of my own capability and health. That's been the deal for thousands of years, I don't see why that should change for me beyond selfishness.

We live in the Hammer because we believe in doing the right thing long-term -- living in a city not a _suburb_, having monetary options for recreation, reducing our impact in balance with our financial capabilities, doing the best we can as parents for our children.

Yeah, I hate commuting, but I'd rather live here and commute to Toronto than live in Toronto and commute to Toronto.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2011 at 10:47:57

And the suburbanites will elect Hudak, and Hudak will know damned well who his supporters are and pay them in kind. Expect more money for highways in suburbia and less support for solidly-orange Hamilton.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted May 31, 2011 at 11:33:31

Ryan, I'd like to see stats on 'mental health' of people who commute long distances by transit (esp. coach and commuter rail, vs. traditional municipal transit), rather than by personal vehicle (an admittedly cursory google search came up snake eyes). Like Myrcurial, I commute by GO, and am fortunate that I can walk to and from my GO Station/Stop. I know that when I used to live in Guelph and commute to Winston Churchill/403 - the amount of time I spent was less than my commute now, but in 6 months the toll on my mental health very nearly cost me my marriage.

Now I've been commuting by GO for over a year now, and in a funny way, kind of enjoy it. I have a blackberry to surf on, I have a good library system in Hamilton to keep me stocked with reading material (to say nothing of Epic Books and Bryan Prince), and I have a good supply of music to listen to. In the mornings I usually nap (as do about 70% of morning GO commuters), and in the afternoon I read and sometimes even write.

I would hypothesize that it's not necessarily the length of the commute, but the stress of the commute that causes the problem.

Of course, we'll see how I feel in a couple more years.

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By Zephyr (registered) | Posted May 31, 2011 at 14:24:23

@myrucrial - You brilliantly expressed my thinking exactly. I have lucked out in finding two consecutive long-term contracts in Burlington/Oakville, but I usually work in Toronto financial services companies. I live in Hamilton because low mortgage payment = flexibility. Sometimes I can take a month or two off, or my husband can. Our financial stress is extremely low. Most of my Toronto colleagues have lived in Scarborough, Mississauga, North York - places they could actually buy homes - and their commutes were not significantly less than mine, but their mortgage payments certainly were. I dream of the day some head offices start moving to Hamilton and consulting opportunities open up here. The creativity and energy I'm seeing in Hamilton these days makes it a compelling place to live - want to see what happens next!

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted June 02, 2011 at 08:33:14

It's about the lesser of evils here - GO commute vs. car commute vs. living in Scarborough. I have it better than most people here who commute as my train ride is only half an hour. Still, my work plus commute takes almost 11 hours out of the day and pays me for 8 of those. I think that's a shitty deal, but then I remind myself of how bad the drive used to be, or God forbid how bad it would be to actually live in some suburb like the place I work.

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By Art Brut (anonymous) | Posted June 22, 2011 at 09:21:06

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