A Mystery of Our Time: The People Who Enjoy Commuting

They’re out there.

A resident of Sydney makes her way to work on a ferry. (Jason Reed / Reuters)

Commuting is a drag. Every minute spent getting to and from work has been shown to take away from time spent working out, cooking, and sleeping. When two economists polled 900 Texans in 2006 about their favorite activities, the morning commute ranked last. Longer commutes make people less healthy, worse at their jobs, and more likely to get divorced—and commutes are only getting longer.

So what is the deal with the small number of people whom transportation researchers have found to be perfectly fine with their commutes, even—shockingly—enjoying them? This is a real thing: When researchers studied the preferences of 1,300 Bay Area commuters in 2004, they found that “about half of the sample were relatively satisfied with the amount they commute, with a small segment actually wanting to increase that amount.” And when the Canadian government administered a survey about 10 years ago, they found that the proportion of respondents who liked commuting (38 percent) was larger than that of those who didn’t like it (30 percent). Sixteen percent, strangely, said they really enjoyed the experience.

How Canadians Felt in 2005 About Daily Activities
Statistics Canada, General Social Survey

Commuting is, at the very least then, a polarizing activity. But what accounts for the broad spectrum of attitudes toward it? What makes it more or less likely that someone will enjoy trudging—or skipping—to work each morning?

One major factor is how people feel about what they’re trudging toward. When the Canadian government studied its citizens’ commuting habits and preferences closely in the mid-aughts, it found that people’s attitudes toward their jobs mattered a lot: The probability that people who liked their work “a great deal” also liked commuting was 64 percent; for those who strongly disliked their work, it was 10 percent. Getting paid well doesn’t hurt either: A Swiss researcher found that people who commute an hour would have to be paid 40 percent more in order to be as happy in life as someone who lives and works in a single neighborhood.

At first glance, it would seem like mode of transport matters a lot too. The Canadians found that only 23 percent of workers who took public transit enjoyed their commute, while that was true of 39 percent of drivers.

But for most people something else trumps mode of transport (and nearly everything else) as a predictor of whether someone would enjoy her commute: how long it takes. It turns out that public-transit commutes tend to be longer than commutes in cars, and when duration was held constant, commuters seemed just as (dis)pleased with subways and buses as with cars. In a 2006 study, researchers who surveyed 208 suburban New Yorkers who took the train to Manhattan arrived at a pretty clear-cut relationship: The longer the commute, the more stressed-out someone will be.

But there was one tiny, peculiar group whom the Canadian government found in its data—3 percent of respondents—who claimed that commuting was the best part of their day—and who didn’t seem as fazed by lengthy commutes. Who on Earth were these people?

They were bikers, mostly. Nineteen percent of people who rode their bikes to work said commuting was their most delightful daily activity, compared to only 2 percent of drivers who felt the same way. (People who walked to work were also significantly more likely to enjoy commuting than people who drove, but biking was yet a stronger predictor.)

Unfortunately for many workers, a short commute or biking may not be options. Whether a worker decides to take a train, drive a car, or bike, and how long the trip lasts, are more determined by what’s available (or cost-effective or safe) given the location of their office vis-a-vis their home than it is about what they’d prefer to do under perfect circumstances of their own creation.

But external factors aren’t everything: Recently, a team of researchers led by Jon Jachimowicz, a doctoral student studying management at Columbia Business School, and Julia Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, identified a personality trait that seems to dictate how much of a toll a commute takes on any given person: self-control. In the study, they found that people with lower levels of self-control were more emotionally exhausted by long commutes. “We find … that that then also predicts whether or not they leave the organization six months later,” Jachimowicz told me.

The reason why, he theorizes, is that people who have higher levels of self-control use their time in transit differently. “Those individuals with higher levels of trait self-control are just naturally more likely to … use their commute to think about their day ahead, what their goals are,” he says, adding that “those with lower levels of trait self-control are more likely to give into the temptation of using the commute in a more fun way.” Partaking in those “fun” things—listening to music, reading, and so on—while commuting is not in and of itself negative. But it does introduce the risk that when people arrive at the office, they haven’t fully transitioned into a work mentality and thus might start the day playing catch-up. Apparently, thinking through their days while in transit mitigates this risk.

Interestingly, though, Jachimowicz, Lee, and their fellow researchers found that prodding commuters to think through their days while in transit made them more satisfied with their jobs. “Being able to set aside a few minutes during commuting for prospection can turn a time period that many employees rate as their least desirable into a slightly less aversive time period—or at least a much more beneficial one,” they write. They add that “this is a behavior that can be learned and adopted by employees regardless of their levels of ... self-control.”

Commuting today is a bit different than it used to be not very long ago. (And with the rise of working remotely, there is an increasing number of people who don’t commute at all.) Between 2004 and 2010, the number of British commuters who took the train reporting that they were wasting their time traveling fell by a little more than a third—a drop that researchers attributed to a sharp rise in the number of commuters using their phone to check email, browse the Internet, or listen to music or podcasts. Today, workers interested in further reducing their angst, then, can at least take solace in the fact that their forebears had it worse.