Should We Hope Congestion Gets Worse?

One of the less cheery parts of studying transportation is that the activity you have devoted your life to is widely considered an unmitigated downer. Even aside from the external environmental costs each trip places on society, travel is held to be no fun for the traveler. We don’t hop behind the wheel for the love of being honked at, cut off and stuck behind a creeping bus or semi; we endure travel only because we’ve got someplace to go. Right?

Hence, it is considered a truism that a primary goal of transportation planning and engineering should be the reduction of the time we spend traveling. After all, who wants to take longer to get somewhere? The surprising answer: maybe you.

I know this sounds fishy. Don’t drivers complain about traffic in poll over poll? Isn’t congestion a huge drain on our economy? Haven’t Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel laureate) and Alan B. Krueger found that the morning and evening commutes are among the least favored activities in peoples’ days? Yes, yes and yes.

(By the way, the PG-13 rating of this blog prevents me from telling you what the most favored activity is.)

However, Lothlorien S. Redmond and Patricia L. Mokhtarian of the University of California at Davis, a pair of transportation scholars with a knack for asking interesting questions (we’ll be hearing more from Professor Mokhtarian and her collaborators in upcoming posts), have found the issue is considerably more nuanced.

Mokhtarian and Redmond have looked at what I consider to be a sorely understudied area, the benefits from travel. (This is a focus of my own personal research; more on that down the road.)

In one of their studies,?Mokhtarian and Redmond examined the commute (i.e. the trip to and from work). They conducted a survey in the San Francisco Bay area which asked subjects what duration their ideal commute would be, and whether their current commute is the “right” length or not.

Counterintuitively, very few people expressed a desire for a commute of “zero.” The most frequent response put the ideal commute at 15-19 minutes, and almost a third of the sample actually said their ideal commute was over 20 minutes. Only 1.2 percent answered zero; this surprising result was largely borne out in follow-up focus groups, where subjects were prompted that zero was a permissible answer.

A comparison of respondents’ ideal commutes and their actual commutes revealed that while most (52 percent) wanted their journey to work to be shorter, 42 percent reported their commute was about the right length and seven percent (mostly those with short commutes) actually wished it would take them an additional five minutes or more longer to get to work. On average, people wanted a commute of around 16 minutes.

Redmond and Mokhtarian went on to try and determine what factors contribute to one’s choice of an ideal commute time. The most important of these is one’s current commute distance; those who have long work trips say they prefer long work trips. This may be because those with lengthy commutes have simply become inured to their situation. But another valid explanation is that people presumably choose home and work locations in part based on their preferred distance between the two; those with longer ideal commutes may be choosing longer actual commutes.

Unsurprisingly, people who agreed with statements like “I use my commute time productively” and “My commute trip is a useful transition between home and work” favored longer commutes. Also preferring longer commutes were type A “organizers,” who prized efficiency, punctuality and mastery, and “status seekers” who were possession-oriented. Those who were more career-centric (tending to agree with statements such as “I’m pretty much a workaholic,” and “I’d like to spend more time on work”) desired longer commutes.

The flip side is that more family- and community-oriented people (who agreed with statements like “my family and friends are more important to me than work” and “I’d like to spend more time on social or religious causes”) expressed a desire for shorter commutes, presumably so they could spend more time on nonwork activities.

Family circumstances might also explain the finding that persons in households with more than one adult were more likely to express a desire for a long commute; perhaps this has to do with time constraints on single parents.

Unsurprisingly, those who were less annoyed by getting around (agreeing with statements such as “getting stuck in traffic doesn’t bother me too much,” and disagreeing with statements like “travel time is generally wasted time” and “the traveling that?I need to do interferes with doing other things I like”) tended to wish for relatively long commutes.

And also unsurprisingly, those who indicated that they sometimes take a longer route than necessary for scenic or other reasons reported a desire for comparatively long commutes. So it seems that some of us like simply like traveling more – or dislike traveling less – than others.

What’s behind our love/hate relationship with travel? Next post, I’ll dig more deeply into this. My thoughts for now: I doubt any peer-reviewed journal would accept a study with a sample size of one, but I can testify to the fact that my trip to campus – which takes me over a breathtaking mountain pass, often in brilliant LA sunshine with the top down and the stereo pumping out the Grateful Dead Ithaca 5/8/77 – is often one of the best parts of my day. Many is the time I’d enjoy a longer commute – unless, of course, the unmitigated bliss of writing a Freakonomics post awaits me at the work end of the journey.

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  1. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    The Number ONE factor leading to improved traffic congestion in the US is the Great Recession. Fewer workers, Fewer Commuters, and Less Congestion.

    In that case, more traffic congestion would signify a Recovery and a Boom. Never thought I would pine for those days of traffic jams! My horn finger is getting itchy.

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  2. Nina says:

    I’d like to hear about commutes not taken in a single-occupancy vehicle as well…

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  3. Bob says:

    Did the studies separate commuters who use public transportation/carpool from the ones who drive themselves? I can see a lot more people wanting another 10 minutes reading or using their smart phone on BART as opposed to another 10 minutes watching the bumper in front of them in stop and go traffic. The former group isn’t affected much by congestion, the latter group hates it.

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  4. Justin James says:

    Other than commutes taken in a form of transportation where you can actually do something meaningful on the commute (mass transit, car pool), there is ZERO value in a commute. Anyone who says otherwise isn’t thinking straight. There is nothing I can do while sitting behind the wheel of a car that I couldn’t do at my office, at home, or anywhere else that I could be instead of driving.


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  5. Harald says:

    Does the study separate commute times from congestion?

    Anecdote: I don’t mind a longer commute if I’m travelling at normal road speeds. It’s congestion, and the resulting delays, that get me steamed up – I don’t like to spend over an hour driving a route that takes 15 minutes on weekends.

    I’ve had friends who have moved out of the city agree with this. It takes them the same amount of time to get to work (or the grocery store) as it did before, but the trip is over a longer distance at higher speeds, and they’re happier with the journey…

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  6. Clancy says:

    I wouldn’t want a zero time commute, because then I would be living at work. Was this a survey of only driving commuters? I have to say, I drive ~15min to work, but I preferred the commute to my previous job which was a 20 min walk.
    My Ideal commute? 5-10 min by bike.

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  7. Julie says:

    I read once that a study produced the finding that people would consider themselves “rich” if they had roughly double their current income. So an office clerk making $35k a year would consider himself rich if he made $70k, while a doctor making $100k would consider herself rich if she were making $200k.

    Perhaps your findings reflect something like this? People might say that their ideal commute time would be, say, half or a third of their current commute time? If most people are commuting 45 minutes, maybe 20 minutes seems about right. If you’re commuting an hour and a half, maybe 45 minutes doesn’t seem so bad.

    Just a thought.

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  8. Abbie says:

    Studies of commute time preferences seem to ignore the factor that’s implicit in travel time: travel distance. Is the desire for a fairly long commute time really a desire to live some distance from the office? People tend to chose to make their home in a neighborhood they like, and to chose their job despite or regardless of its surroundings.

    If a short commute means limiting yourself to job in your subdivision, or setting up house in the middle of an office parking lot, neither is appealing. In a modern suburb, 15 minutes is just enough to get you from a typical office/retail district into a residential area from which you can’t see or smell the highway.

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