heavy traffic istock As a recent convert to bike commuting, I am keenly aware that I take my life into my hands each time I saddle up (See Jen Langston’s recent post on the safety of various modes of transportation—relatively, bikes don’t come out looking too safe, but, of course, car travel ain’t exactly without its risks either.)

But, if all commutes can kill, at least I’ll go down with the wind in my hair, a smile on my face, and feeling fit and energized (and smug, apparently). The point is, I get to ride my bike to work mostly because I have a relatively short commute. Many aren’t so lucky. And as new research shows, long commutes—car crashes and other accidents aside—take their toll in other more insidious ways—killing us slowly or at least causing some misery and suffering while we’re alive.

In fact, American workers with lengthy commutes are more likely to report a range of adverse physical and emotional conditions, leading to lower overall scores on Gallup-Healthway’s “well-being index.” Whether it’s time away from family and friends, sitting uncomfortably in a confined space, loss of exercise and recreation time, or bouts of road rage, long commutes take their toll.

  • According to the study, American employees report an average commute from home to work of 23 minutes (about exactly the length of my bike ride!), with average times higher in most of the country’s largest metro areas. About one in five US workers (19 percent) spend more than half an hour getting to work, and 3 percent commute for more than an hour each way. The research doesn’t seem to differentiate between car or transit commuters—I mean some of these folks could be taking a bus, a ferry, or a train…or all of the above. But I think it’s safe to assume that the bulk of the results represent car commuters, and at the very least people who are sitting (not pedaling) for most of the commute.

    Those who do report long commutes are more likely to complain of several health problems. For example, one in three workers with a commute of more than 90 minutes say they have had a neck or back condition that has caused recurrent pain in the past 12 months. Those with long commutes are also more likely to say they have at some point been diagnosed with high cholesterol and are more likely to have a Body Mass Index that classifies them as obese.

    Those are some of the tolls long commutes seem to take on our bodies. But what does all that time sitting in traffic do to our minds? Here’s Gallup on the emotional impacts:

    The psychological toll of long commutes may be as detrimental to individuals’ wellbeing as the physical effects. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger in 2004 tracked the emotional states of employed women in Texas during their daily activities. They found that respondents’ ratio of positive to negative emotions was particularly low during time spent commuting.

    Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index results also point to a connection between commuting and emotional wellbeing. Among employees who take more than 90 minutes getting from home to work, 40 percent experienced worry for much of the previous day—significantly higher than the 28 percent among those with negligible commutes of 10 minutes or less. Conversely, workers with extremely long commutes were less likely to have experienced enjoyment for much of the previous day or to say they felt well-rested that day.

    Galup commute wellbeing

    Gallup suggests that the findings should motivate employers to consider the social costs in productivity and creativity and turnover as they weigh decisions about location, transit and parking policies, and flexibility around telecommuting and other tricks for reducing the need to commute each and every day.

    For my part, I used to take exception to cycling fanatics’ (some very close to me) holier-than-thou attitude. I guess I’ve joined their ranks now. But I try not to be too holy. And I certainly don’t suggest everyone can or should commute the way I do. Far from it. What I do think this study indicates are some real personal and basic quality of life reasons—forgetting for a moment community-level reasons like traffic, pollution, energy politics, global warming—to insist that we grow our cities in such a way that affordable housing is close to job centers, transit is accessible and convenient, and biking and walking is safe.

    Image: istock.

    For a larger version of the table and the full report, click here.