“People with longer commutes rearrange their whole week around it”

Walkers in London: these people are actually happier. Image: Getty.

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. 

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.