The Commuting Paradox

by | Apr 22, 2019


Another working day has ended.
Only the rush hour hell to face.
Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.
Contestants in a suicidal race.

-The Police, Synchronicity II

An IFOD a few weeks ago concerned how much commuting we can generally tolerate each day. The simplified answer to that is “about an hour a day.” That IFOD is here: How Much Commuting Can You Tolerate? Today’s IFOD is also about commuting: why do we choose longer commutes when commuting makes us unhappy?

The Standard Model of Economic Theory provides that economic factors find equilibrium: supply and demand equal at a particular price; workers are willing to trade their time and skills for certain wages; in the stock market buyers and sellers of stocks transact at prices that seek an equilibrium.* Where disequilibrium persists it is considered an economic paradox.

Commuting sucks. It is usually listed as one of our least favorite activities in surveys. Commuting takes time, creates stress, is expensive, negatively impacts our happiness and has been shown to negatively affect health and family life.

The strain of commuting is associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, lowered frustration tolerance and increased anxiety and hostility, being in a bad mood when arriving at work in the morning and coming home in the evening, increased lateness, absenteeism and turnover at work, as well as adverse effects on cognitive performance.

-Koslowsky, Meni, Commuting Stress: Causes Effects, and Methods of Coping. (1995)

From an economic perspective, in order to take on the psychological, physical, temporal and monetary costs of commuting, commuters should be compensated either by:

  1. a great job (money or otherwise intrinsically rewarding) or
  2. additional welfare and happiness from a better living environment further from work.

In other words, economically, commuting should be in equilibrium – the “costs” of commuting should be offset by benefits of a better job or home and thus overall wellbeing should remain neutral. A study by researchers at the University of Zurich, however, found that “people with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being.” Having a commute one standard deviation greater than the average reduces subjective well being about the same as breaking up with a romantic partner and about 1/5th as bad as being unemployed and unable to find a job. Why people choose longer commutes when it harms overall wellbeing is an economic paradox.


So, why do people choose longer commutes if there is “a systematically incomplete compensation” for commuting time? While there is no definitive answer, the University of Zurich researchers do posit a few possible justifications for the commuting paradox:

  1. Household Level Effect: While the person doing the commuting may be doing worse off, many people are members of households and maybe other family members benefit from the living location so much that it offsets the commuting costs of the commuting family member.
  2. Transaction Costs: Maybe transaction costs of moving houses or changing jobs might impact the ability to reach economic equilibrium.
  3. Not Good Judge of Commuting Costs: “People might not be capable of correctly assessing the true costs of commuting for their well-being. They make mistakes when they predict their adaptation to daily commuting stress.”
  4. Laziness: “The decision to start searching for a job closer to home or an apartment that reduces commuting time is again and again postponed to the following week . . . “

None of these explanations is fully satisfying and research on this topic has yet to find answers. We humans aren’t always rational economic actors.

Sort of related: Here’s a fantastic article by David Brooks on considerations about where to live and the importance of interaction with other people. Fantastic: The Haimish Line.

*Note, however, the Standard Model of Economic Theory has its own issues and is often incorrect (as this IFOD shows).


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