Thursday, April 01, 2010

Commuting hell

Is the trade-off between that big house in the suburbs and that long commute to work really worth it?

David Brooks, summarizing the current state of happiness research:

The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting. According to one study, being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year.

In other words, the best way to make yourself happy is to have a short commute and get married. I'm afraid science can't tell us very much about marriage so let's talk about commuting. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer announced the discovery of a new human foible, which they called "the commuters paradox". They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimate the pain of a long commute. This leads people to mistakenly believe that the big house in the exurbs will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional hour to work.

Of course, as Brooks notes, that time in traffic is torture, and the big house isn't worth it. According to the calculations of Frey and Stutzer, a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. Another study, led by Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger, surveyed nine hundred working women in Texas and found that commuting was, by far, the least pleasurable part of their day.

Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."

I personally find sitting in rush-hour traffic to be intolerable in its stressfulness and frustration, which is why I prefer to live in the inner city and close to major employment centers, even though housing is generally more expensive than it is in the suburbs. And, it's why when I did live in the suburbs, I took advantage of METRO's extensive and frequent HOV-based park and ride bus service to commute to downtown. I could nap, read the paper or listen to music while somebody else drove, and I didn't have to pay to park once I got to the central business district.

Life is too short to make us unhappy. Driving in rush-hour traffic clearly makes us so. Which is why I remain a believer in the ability of things like public transportation, carpooling, HOV lanes and congestion pricing to improve our quality of life.

1 comment:

John said...

For years I spent 30-60 minutes each way communiting about 12 miles from Washington, DC to northern Virginia. It was killing me. Now I commute 8-12 minutes (depends on the lights) from my great historic bungalow to my downtown office. This is why I moved to Houston.