“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. 

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.