Commuting for happiness

by Charles Montgomery on

A new survey of thousands of British commuters is turning years of accepted wisdom on its head. It turns out that taking transit can actually make us happy.

Does transit really make us happy? (BC Transit image)










Over the years, surveys of commuters have shown that people who cycle or walk report feeling the most joy on their journeys, followed by car drivers. People who take public transit have almost always reported being the least satisfied with their trips.

This makes intuitive sense: the results are heavily influenced by the responses from people who rely on street level busses to get around. Bus users put up with longer trips, low levels of arrival time certainty, and are reminded of their low status whenever they see cars whizzing by.

But the University of East Anglia study suggests that car drivers are actually made less happy by their journeys than everyone else. That includes supposedly-miserable transit users.

“You might think that things like disruption to services or crowds of commuters might have been a cause of considerable stress,” announced lead researcher Adam Martin, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School. “But as buses or trains also give people time to relax, read, socialise, and there is usually an associated walk to the bus stop or railway station, it appears to cheer people up.”

They found that commute times are important—but with an interesting twist:

“The longer people spend commuting in cars, the worse their psychological wellbeing. And correspondingly, people feel better when they have a longer walk to work.”

But why was their conclusion so different from other commuting surveys? Well, Martin and his team took a really rigorous approach, for starters. They went beyond just asking if people liked their trips. They compared trip choice to overall well-being. This is important. I like chocolate, but if I eat a pound of it every day, I will likely report lower wellbeing in the long run.

They studied 18 years of data on almost 18,000 18-65-year-old commuters in Britain. That meant examining multiple aspects of psychological health including feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness, sleepless nights, and being unable to face problems. It also meant taking into account all kinds of other factors that affect happiness, including income, having children, moving house or job, and relationship changes.

Why does that matter? Because your feelings about your life and your commute are influenced by your economic status, your relationships, your sense of status, etc. If bus riders are poorer, then they may be already be more stressed about life than drivers, and more likely to report being made unhappy about the journey.

That’s why the most groundbreaking element of the East Anglia study was this: They looked at what happened to people over time, specifically when they changed their mode of commute.

People who switched from their car to active transportation: that is, walking, biking, or even taking public transit, got happier with their lives.

The authors themselves appear to be surprised by the positive association with public transit use. They speculate that it may be because people increasingly take time on transit to read, work or socialize on their devices. And they point out that more importantly,  almost every transit trip begins and ends with a walk.

And we all know, there is almost nothing better for your mood than taking a stroll.

My takeaway:

Most of us don’t think about the salubrious effects of our connective walks when considering taking transit. We should.

City builders and transit planners should consider walking environments as crucial parts of their transit systems. We need beautiful, safe, interesting public places en route to our shared rides.