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.


Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

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.

Nina

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

Bob

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.

Justin James

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.

J.Ja

Harald

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...

Clancy

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.

Julie

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.

Abbie

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.

SD112

As a resident of Southern California who has tried almost everything--including a 2-hour commute on our notoriously inefficient public transportation; carpooling; driving by myself; a work-from-home commute time of approximately 4 seconds from bedroom to office--I can see the benefits of the longer commute. Sure, I wouldn't choose to go back to it, but that 2-hour bus ride gave me a lot of time to read "War and Peace" and "A Suitable Boy." I haven't read a book that long since I stopped taking the bus. Even the solo car commute gave me time to play music in peace. I can imagine working parents preferring a bit of a longer commute just as you always hear about stay-at-home parents enjoying the bathroom as their only respite from the constant clamor for attention.

Dan

Personally, I find a major difference between commute times spent in a car vs. public transportation vs. on foot. My own job is anywhere between 30-60 minutes by car, depending on time of day, or more consistently 45 min by bus and subway. I much more prefer the public transportation method because I can spend the time reading or just looking out the window. Commuting by car is more stressful, especially in rush hour.

On the lower limit of preferred commute times, I suspect that there are other factors at play. Most people probably equate a zero commute with living at the office. Or they may have a notion of what the neighborhoods near their offices are like (boring corporate office parks in the suburbs or overwhelming skyscrapers downtown) and maybe subconsciously decide that there is some minimal distance they want to be from this.

Lastly, at the very lower end of the spectrum of commute times, if I lived within a mile or less of my office, I'd be strongly inclined to walk (20 min) or bike (<10 min?) rather than drive (<2-5 min?) simply because of the exercise.

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Joe D

Back before I started telecommuting, I wouldn't have minded a longer commute as long as there was a shower at *both* ends (I rode my bike into downtown South Bend).

Matt

I don't mind a little commute, but I think reducing delays and traffic are the real reason why people "hate" commuting.

I'm pretty sure almost everyone would rather a peaceful "20 minute" drive to work that in actuality takes between 18 and 22 minutes every day. But if that "20 minute drive" takes 10 minutes half the time and 30 minutes the other half, that sucks. Or if it's generally 15 minutes, but once every couple weeks it takes an hour, that would be unacceptable.

Bobby G

@DBDDT (#1),

Actually, if we want to get technical, the number one leading factor for improved traffic congestion is fewer traffic-causing drivers on the road, aka drivers that drive inefficiently (slow in the fast lane, brake for no reason, poor merge decisions).

Sure, indirectly, fewer total drivers would indicate fewer idiot drivers as well, but if we were to take the current number of drivers in the country, add 1, and then replace all the idiots with non-idiots, traffic conditions would certainly improve. On the other hand, if we took the current numbers of drivers, reduced that number by 1, and replaced all the non-idiots with idiots, traffic conditions would certainly get worse. So while having fewer drivers and assuming idiocy rates are the same does improve traffic conditions, it's an indirect result of the absolute reduction of idiot drivers.

As for my opinions on commuting, I think I enjoy a commute of 15 mins in the morning. I also like the transition period between home and work, giving my mind time to warm up to the excel financial analysis I have waiting for me at work. However, since I live about 15 mins away when there is no traffic, having traffic extend my commute to 25-30 minutes to even an hour is frustrating because I have not planned for it and because after 15 minutes I feel like I am wasting my time. So yes, I would be someone who would not vote 0 minutes for a desired commute but someone who still hates traffic. I would prefer 0 traffic at all times.

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Shane

Well in general a commute of zero is fine by me, and I have worked from home and found it pleasing and convenient.

However I do remember that for my first two years in college I had to walk for about 25 minutes from my home, a commute I spent listening to music on my walkman. I noticed that by the time I arrived in college I was energised and lively, possibly due to the mighty metal music I was listening to! When I later lived on the college campus I missed that walk.

Jeff #3

My morning commute is about 7 minutes. That about doubles if you count the time it takes to walk from my vehicle to my cube. I think it' a good time, and allows me to go home over my lunch break.

Across from me is someone who's commute is around 1:45 one way. I can't imagine spending that much time driving every day.

Ben

Yeah, thank God for the recession.

JimFive

I don't think it is surprising that so few answered zero. If your commute is zero minutes then you are LIVING AT WORK, and no one wants to do that.

PaulD

These results are certainly counter-intuitive to me. I have a fairly long commute in Los Angeles, but it is made somewhat less painful by the fact that I am on a commuter bus which enables me to read or sleep. Even so, if I could step into a Star Trek-style transporter and be instantly beamed home I would.

I guess the one advantage of working further away is that the boss is less likely to ask you to make a special trip to the office on the weekends, for instance.

hal

And what about the personal commute vehicle?

A peaceful glide in a large easy chair with a 21 speaker sound system, while looking down on the "mere car crowd", may be much more pleasant than rocketing along close to the ground in a wheezy bucket of bolts with a Swiss cheese muffler. Many commute vehicles exceed the comfort levels of home or workplace.

Vin

I've always thought of my commute as a 'useful transition between home and work.' It is, by New York standards, relatively short and painless - about half an hour, door-to-door, and on a relatively uncrowded subway line. I read or people-watch or look at the skyline as the train goes over the bridge. I don't really mind it. I would like to see some numbers on public transit commutes.

Two other observations: One, I don't really mind getting stuck in traffic, but I suspect that's because I do not drive to work. Usually, if I'm driving, I'm going to visit friends or family, so I'm not very worried about being exactly on-time.

Second, I've always considered being in transit - be it on a train, car or bus - to be sort of Zen-like. All you need to think about is what you are doing at that moment and getting to your destination. I actually think there's something peaceful about it. I like the simplicity.

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