Anyone who’s ever been stuck in traffic can tell you it’s extremely stressful. Now add in the pressure of not knowing whether you’re going to make it to that morning office meeting on time, and you have a recipe for anxiety and misery.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly how most Americans start their day.
A new study by Clever Real Estate looks at the total cost of long commutes; not just the easy-to-measure costs like gas and depreciation, but the hidden, and often steeper, emotional and psychological costs. Their findings might inspire you to get a job within walking distance of your home.
Commute Time Is Wasted Time
The average American commute is 46 minutes a day, but almost a third of U.S. workers spend an hour or more trudging back and forth from work. Commuting can be so dispiriting that many studies have found that commuting is more stressful than actually working. But while it’s a necessary evil, it’s also wasted time.
Adding up that commute time over the course of a year produces a total of over 200 hours. That figure in and of itself is fairly meaningless until you view it through the lens of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is an economic term that looks at all the opportunities an individual loses out on by making a specific choice. In other words, what could you have done with that time, if you hadn’t wasted it commuting?
In this context, let’s say that 200 hours had been spent working instead of sitting on a train or in a car on the freeway. In that time, a typical American would’ve earned over $5,000. While that’s a nice chunk of change, look at it another way: that could’ve been 30 minutes of additional sleep every day of the year.
An already dreary commute looks even more wasteful when you measure the other ways you could have spent that 200 hours.
Commuting Is Expensive
Commutes are a financial double whammy: while you’re missing out on 200 hours of potential earnings a year, you’re also shelling out for gas, insurance and car maintenance.
On average, commuters travel about 23 miles a day to and from work. Using the national average gas price of $2.60 per gallon, and AAA’s estimate of 8.94 cents of depreciation and maintenance per mile, that means the average commuter is spending at least $1,249 a year on commuting. That’s a lot to pay for something that no one enjoys.
It gets worse. According to State Farm, the more you drive, the higher your insurance premiums. Partly, that’s because the more you’re out there on the road, the higher your chances of getting in a collision. It’s also due to the fact that work vehicles cost more to insure than pleasure vehicles. Either way, commuters are paying more for auto insurance than other drivers, and the longer their commute, the more they’re paying. It’s bad enough that commuting is so expensive; on top of that, commuters are financially penalized for going to and from work.
The study also found that longer commutes are associated with lower incomes. That means that people who are making less money are forced to spend more out of pocket, literally and proportionally, just to get to work. Consider that spending $1,249 a year on commuting when you make $80,000 a year is relatively painless compared to someone spending $1,500 a year to get to a job that pays them $25,000 a year. In commuting as in so many other things, being poor is expensive.
Commuting Makes People Unhappy and Unhealthy
Examining the psychological and physical costs of commuting reveals an even darker side to that morning drive.
Commuting is stressful because traffic is, by nature, unpredictable and anxiety provoking. These twice-daily spikes in stress levels steadily erode quality of life. When measuring overall levels of life satisfaction, one study found that a twenty minute increase in commute time was the equivalent to a 19% pay cut. And keep in mind that if your boss told you that they were cutting your pay by 19%, you’d immediately start looking for a new job, while people simply don’t have the option to opt out of their commute.
Using regression analysis on data from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps found a firm relationship between long commutes and poor health. Increasing commute times increased the proportion of the population in poor or fair health by 0.7 percentage points, with an additional one mile in commute distance equal to an increase of 1.36% in the proportion of the population in poor health. The clear conclusion is that the longer the commute, the less healthy the commuter.
This conclusion is supported by many other studies. A survey in the U.K. found that employees with longer commutes are 33% more likely to be depressed, and 46% more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep per night. It also found that long commuters were 21% more likely to be obese than employees who commuted less than thirty minutes, each way. These effects are reflected in absentee rates; it’s long been observed that people with long commutes miss more work than people who live closer.
Why is commuting so harmful to physical health? Scientists are still studying that question, but some theorize it might have something to do with increased exposure to traffic-related air pollution, which has been known to raise the risk of heart attack and asthma. But let’s not ignore the obvious connection: unhappiness has long been known to negatively impact health, and commuting makes people unhappy.
Commuting Hurts Employers as Much as Employees
Any HR consultant will tell you that a happy employee is a productive employee. But the reverse is also true: an unhappy employee is an unproductive one. Commute times don’t just depress life satisfaction, they also decrease a worker’s ability to work effectively; people whose commutes are longer than an hour lose a full seven days of productive work every year by missing work and being less productive when they’re there.
How meaningful is that loss when you extrapolate it over the entire workforce? One study found that unscheduled absences cost companies $2,660 per worker, per year, and that under motivated, fatigued workers cost employers a staggering $156.5 billion a year in lost productivity.
So what are possible solutions for this insidious problem? There’s no easy answer, but there are measures that individuals, businesses, and local governments can take to increase productivity and cultivate a happier workforce. Decreasing sprawl and building more efficient public transportation are two big, top-down solutions.
If companies have employees who are stuck with long commutes, rolling out a flexible work-from-home policy can help reduce some of the toxic effects of sitting in traffic every day and night. And individuals can make better decisions on where to live and work, prioritizing low commute times and, by extension, personal wellness. The science is clear: commuting isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s a public health risk.
Dr. Francesca Ortegren, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at Clever Real Estate where she focuses on helping people understand complex data, real estate, finances, business, and the economy by researching various topics, analyzing data, and reporting useful insights for general consumption.
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