I was recently led down to the basement at the Department for Transport to learn about the results of the Commuting and Wellbeing Study: a report which used existing data to understand the relationship between commuting time, travel mode and wellbeing.
The headline result of the study is that every extra minute of commute time reduces job satisfaction, reduces leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and reduces mental health. On average, 10 extra minutes of commute time has the same negative effect on life satisfaction as a £490/month loss in income. Every 10 extra minutes of commute time are also responsible for a reduction in job satisfaction equivalent to a 19 per cent reduction in gross personal income.
Walking or cycling to work, working from home and shorter commute times all increase job satisfaction, and make it more likely that an employee will want to stay with their job. So all an employer needs to do is encourage some mode shift to get happy workers, right?
Within the study, commuter mode changes were common, with 18 per cent of study participants changing mode in the past year. However, this was much less likely among car drivers. This strikes me as a problem for policy makers – as this are the group we most desperately need to change to more sustainable transport modes.
Interestingly shorter rail commutes are found to be 'more strenuous' than longer ones, which might reflect the relative discomfort of inner urban rail. Perhaps this group would be easier to help towards active travel?
People with longer commutes even rearrange their whole week around it: less sleep on weeknights, more sleep at weekends. It can take up to a year for the negative effects of a longer commute to manifest.
The study methodology ensured relationships between commuting and wellbeing are separated from other factors, such as wealth. Millennials, who we’re encouraged to think have ruined everything and don’t know how to suffer, are more resilient to a longer commutes and it does not reduce their job satisfaction as much.
Employers potentially have the most to gain from this study. Acting on it can increase job satisfaction and even leisure time satisfaction in their workers. But how can they help to shorten commutes and encourage mode shift to walking and cycling?
For larger employers, they can think about where their workplaces are located in respect of their employees. Higher business rents in certain locations might be worth the value of employee retention. For smaller employers, simple things like providing changing and showering facilities could increase active travel.
To get the societal benefits of this study we need to see workplaces, business improvement districts and local authorities working together to ensure as many journeys as possible can be completed using walking and cycling. This means revisiting some of the assumptions that underpinned city, suburban and business park design.
Steve Chambers is policy & research coordinator at Living Streets, the charity for every day walking.