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The Long and the Short of It: How Your Daily Commute Can Harm or Help You

I5 to downtown Seattle, puget sound, and Olympic mountains, photograph by Thatcher Kelley https://colorbent.com

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that probably most of you reading this right now have approximately a three-step daily commute these days. I mean, literally, you take three steps and you’re there. And if more than that, it’s probably still shorter than one minute, right? So what better time than now to talk about your commute to work?

OK, maybe I’m being a little ironic. Don’t you think?

And isn't it ironic, don't you think
#sorrynotsorry

No daily commute = no more pants!

But think about it. For those of you able to work from home right now, you may be at any of a number of stages of wondering if you might like to continue working from home once the rules are loosened around this pandemic. After all, you can roll out of bed, maybe change your clothes, and there you are, right at the office! You don’t even need any pants! Just this morning, I led a very public Zoom live broadcast with a nice blouse on top, and my pyjamas on the bottom. At the end of the day, I can just meander downstairs and hang out with the kids, or I can unlock my bedroom door and let them all burst into my bedroom while all yelling things at me at the same time. It’s convenient!

man video internet broadcast no pants
Pretty fancy live broadcast setup for a guy who isn’t even wearing any pants.

But have any of you noticed that maybe this non-commute isn’t totally ideal? And I’m not talking about just the working-at-home factor with kids or a spouse wandering into Zoom meetings and the temptation to eat an entire bag of chips because nobody else is looking. I’m talking strictly about commuting. The lines between work and home are blurred. Sometimes I work until late at night if my kids or husband don’t pull me away (like I’m doing right now, hahaha . . . ha . . . ha *ahem*). Some days I might work all day . . . and then keep working until I’m dragged away for supper (my awesome husband is the cook). I’m no expert, but this can’t be a good thing. Does this mean that I might NEED a commute to separate work from home?

The long commute

I’m sure you all know that a long commute isn’t a great. You know this because you’ve probably experienced it. Depending on various factors, it can be stressful and tiring, both physically and mentally. But did you know that a long commute can affect you negatively in more ways than that?

Researchers found that each extra minute of commuting time reduces both job AND leisure time satisfaction and increases strain and worsens mental health for workers, and multiple studies even suggest that commuting can be more stressful than actually working. 😮 In fact, an 20 additional minutes of commuting per day has the same negative effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19% pay cut. Yikes.

It can be particularly stressful and dangerous during open season on the LA Freeway.

An employee’s long commute isn’t good news for an employer either. An employee who commutes a long distance is more likely to have a higher rate of absenteeism and more sick days, caused the extra stress on joints, or for those who take public transit, more time spent in close proximity to others.

With all of this in mind, one might also wonder, “so why isn’t a zero commute perfect?”

The importance of transition time

Well, as it turns out, a regular daily commute is a great time for preparing for your day before work and decompressing from your day after work. People often use their drive in to work to think about upcoming projects, meetings, events, and various other work-related things, and the people who do this also experience more work satisfaction as well.

I can personally speak to this — normally my commute is approximately 45-50 minutes long. Fortunately, it’s a reverse-commute, so I rarely hit bad traffic, and a lot of it is through the countryside with very little traffic. After living here for five years, I STILL haven’t found a radio station that I like, so I’ve turned to podcasts; educational podcasts as well as podcasts that offer insight into how I can improve myself.

Oprah: bees!!!
Did you know that the world record for most bees in a person’s mouth is 109? Well now you do.

I learn something new almost every day, either a piece of knowledge about how I might be able to improve how I work, or something about psychology and how I might adjust the way I work with other people, or just a fact about the world that is incredibly interesting. (If you’re wondering, some of my favourites include Hidden Brain, Something You Should Know, No Such Thing as a Fish, and 99% Invisible.) I can’t leave out the detail that such a long drive is exhausting. By the time I get home, I’m usually too tired to do anything.

Alternative transportation (this isn’t just about cars!)

“OK,” some of you might be asking, “what about the differences in modes of transportation?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. It turns out that people who walk and cycle are the happiest and most satisfied and even find that their commute is often the best part of their day. As for distance, the happiest are the walkers and cyclists who have a short distance to travel. And not only that, the behaviour improves their physical health and can enhance job performance.

Monty Python ministry of silly walks
I can only imagine how joyous and meaningful one’s life would be if one were to adopt a silly walk for his or her daily commute.

And what about those who ride public transit? They fall somewhere in the middle. Transit riders do experience stress, particularly if their bus is delayed or stuck in traffic (an occurrence that walkers and cyclists rarely need worry about), but when they have stressful days at work, their detachment from the commute actually helps them de-stress so by the time they are home, they have recovered from the stress and are ready for home life.

Why is this long commute such an issue anyway?

I know some of you might be sitting there saying, “well duh, just move closer to work!” which does seem to be an obvious solution, but like most things, life is not really that simple. Did you know that the average distance from home to work has increased over the last several decades? Now, this is information out of the US, but I’m going to bet that Canada isn’t that different. On average, US commute is about 50 minutes. Yeah. FIFTY MINUTES. Which surprises me and doesn’t surprise me at the same time.

As an aside, I’m a native of Seattle, and I knew many people who had commutes like that, and even longer. I asked my dad what his worst commute ever was, and he said it was from our home in Des Moines (south of Seattle) to Redmond (that’s where Microsoft lives). On a good day, that’s about a 40 minute drive. During rush hour it’s twice as long. And out there, rush hour starts at 6 AM and ends around 9:30 or 10:00 AM. So there’s no avoiding it.

kingdome implosion
Eventually, you start to feel a bit like the Kingdome by the end of the day.

Anyway, back to what I was saying, why don’t people just live closer to work? Well, the population has just about doubled, while homebuilding has decreased, leading to an increase in housing prices, especially in metropolitan neighbourhoods. Any jobs close to where people work are next to impossible to afford, and even if they are, they aren’t ideal for families. So affordable housing is pushed further and further away from centres of where people work. Enter: the long commute.

If 50 minutes is too long, and 0 minutes is too short, then what IS the ideal daily commute?

Good question, and I could be annoying and say that everybody’s ideal commute is going to be different from person to person, but I won’t do that to you. I mean, yes, the preceding statement is true, but you know that already. But interestingly, when a study in San Francisco asked people about their ideal commute times, they found the ideal daily commute was approximately 16 minutes.

luke skywalker in his hovercraft
I’m not sure I’m settled on my ideal length of commute, but this is definitely my ideal mode of transportation.

About one-third of the respondents said their ideal commute time would be 20 minutes or more, less than 2% said theirs would be ideally under 4 minutes, and only 1.2% desired a zero commute. However, nearly 52% preferred a commute at least 5 minutes longer than their (on average) 10-minute commute. Meanwhile, 42% of participants whose actual AND ideal trips were the same, their average commute time was 15 minutes.

So there you have it: your average commute time is probably somewhere around 15 or 16 minutes.

So what do I do now?

I mean, you can do whatever you want, really. But I recommend you take this information, and start planning for the future. Someday we’ll be able to leave our homes for work, but for now I’ll leave you with these tips:

  • If you remain at home with zero commute, consider a 15 minutes before and after work virtual commute, whether it’s a walk around the block, or sitting quietly with your eyes closed thinking about the upcoming day, or the day you have just finished.
  • If your commute feels too short, go ahead, leave a bit earlier in the morning and take the scenic route. I add five minutes to my drive just so I can avoid traffic and so I can drive the scenic way, and it’s well worth those five minutes.
  • If your commute is ideal and you are a happy person, then keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a rockstar!
  • If your commute is too long, then you’ve got a few things to think about:
  • Is it possible to move closer to work? Is your current job worth the drive? Would you consider getting a job closer to home? If the answer is yes, then try one of those, if the answer is no, then find ways to make your commute more enjoyable:
    • Find someone who lives near you and works near you to carpool with.
    • Turn off the radio and start listening to something that will really engage your brain and get it in gear for the day. Yup, that’s right. No music. (See my podcast suggestions above.)
    • Consider requesting to telecommute once or twice a week, just to give your body a break from the long drive.
  • If you ride public transit, keep your brain engaged. Prepare for the work day, listen to podcasts, or read a book.
  • Talk with the strangers around you. I know it seems like you might be annoying, but it turns out that most people are pretty happy when someone reaches out to talk with them. Don’t know how? Start with a classic, like commenting on the weather.
  • If you walk or bicycle to work, you’re probably already happy, and you probably shouldn’t distract yourself whilst doing so anyway, so you just keep being your happy self.
dog walking on hind legs down grocery aisle making decisions
There are so many things you can do to improve your life! So many choices! What will you do?!

You’re not alone

We all have our own commuter stories, so I asked some friends, family, and coworkers about theirs:

DeborahWorst: My worst commute might have been when I had to go to a chiropractor twice a week in Bothell. Because I didn’t want to deal with traffic, I scheduled my appointments extremely early. However, if I left just five minutes too late, my drive time was doubled. And then I had the commute from there to work (which was only a 15 minute drive from my home).
Best: When I worked at the same company as my dad for three years. I lived only a mile from my parents, so my dad and I carpooled, it was a reverse commute, and only 15 minutes. I loved having that good quality time with my dad.
-Deborah (me)

TimBest: I used to live a 5 minute drive away from the Safeway I used to work at. I’d start at 6:30am so there were no cars going there. And almost guaranteed no traffic on my way home.
Worst: Worst would’ve been going to and from Spruce Grove during the winter.
-Tim, systems administrator

StefenWorst: Worst was bussing from Edmonton to Spruce Grove about 5 years ago. Bus service has improved significantly since then — at the time, I’d get up at 4:30am to catch a connecting bus at 5, which would drop me off at the bus garage. There I’d wait half an hour for the one departing bus to leave for Spruce Grove, and if I missed it for some reason, there wasn’t another.
Best: Best was the 15 minute walk from my house to the office. Winter, summer, not too bad. Just enough time to collect my thoughts and plan the day.
-Stefen, developer

LeahBest: Best was a 10 minute drive during my summer job; I worked at the golf course, no traffic (or just small town traffic)
Worst: Worst commute is driving in the winter into Spruce Grove, the first like 25 minutes of my drive the roads NEVER get cleared if its snowed until the afternoon, so if it has snowed it’s always risky.
-Leah, social media specialist

KellyWorst: I had to take the streetcar or subway from [in Toronto] Dundas and Roncesvalles to Dundas and University… However, if I caught the streetcar or subway between the hours of 730-930 on the way in, I’d be standing the entire way and stopping constantly, turning what would be a 30 min commute to usually an hour and a half. If I caught the subway at those times, it’d be shoulder to shoulder the whole way in and super uncomfortable. On the way back was worse though. There was a shortturn about 10 blocks before my stop, and the streetcars never were marked for when they were shortturn or not. So regularly I’d catch the streetcar, be standing and uncomfortable the whole way, and then be dropped off in -20C weather 10 blocks short of my apartment, and have to wait for the streetcar that isn’t shortturning. If I tried to take the subway instead, it was worse than the morning. So I basically had to not leave until 630/7 at the earliest.
Best: Best commute was living downtown Toronto, literally a block from Panda Rose at our Dundas and McCaul location. Simply being able to walk and avoid public transit changed my quality of life immensely.
-Kelly, CEO

MaxineWorst: Worst commute was roughly 60 mins, first heading west to drop kids at dayhome and then back north to the office.
Best: Best commute was 15-20 mins to Spruce Grove Panda Rose office but won’t compare to the 30 second walk to my kitchen table as of late.
-Maxine, operations manager

GerardWorst: I used to commute up and down to university daily. It would take an hour drive to get to the city and then I would need to catch a bus from the park and ride area which would take another 20/30 mins. And if you got caught during traffic time between 8-10 in the morning or 4-6 in the evening you might as well add another hour on to the journey.
Best: Does the current situation count? Haha
-Gerard, developer

JoshWorst: Working at Metro East Base in Bellevue was the worst (only for 3 weeks). Having to be there at 5:30 or 6 AM. Traffic on I405.
Best: My favourite commutes were on my way in to work at NWCN in South Lake Union. The drive on the viaduct at sunset was epic.
And traffic was light.
-Josh, Deborah’s twin brother, public bus driver

Thatcher KelleyWorst: Culver City CA commuting from Whittier, CA. 1.5 hours each way 5 days a week.
Best: We were shooting at the airport and I lived in Seatac. But that was only a couple days.
-Thatcher, Deborah’s other brother, Digital Imaging Technician

PatWorst/Best: I don’t think I have had any worst commute. I guess when I worked at World Vision it was the furthest but reverse commute so not bad at all. I guess my best commute was when I worked from home. I drove from Des Moines to Burien, Des Moines to Des Moines, Des Moines to Federal Way (nice drive down along Redondo), Redwood City to Palo Alto. Really most were within 15-20 minutes and traffic not bad. I mean from Normandy Park to World Vision was always nice because it was reverse commute and I just listened to the radio the whole way. 20 minutes tops.
-Pat, Deborah’s mum, retired

Well look at that — the Boomer had perfect commutes her whole life. 😉 But seriously, her experience backs up the research!

2 comments

  • My favorite commute was
    10 minutes when I went in at 5 AM,
    12 minutes when I went in at 7AM,
    and 15 minutes with existential dread.

    I may just have to take a 15 minute walk before I start my work from home job! Thanks, Deborah!

    • LOL, so what occasions caused the existential dread? And . . . are you also suggesting that your work from home job causes existential dread? :-p (I hope not!) 😀

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