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The Pursuit of Happiness: How Commute Mode Affects Commute Mood - MobilityLab

Choosing how to travel to and from work isn’t always an easy decision, even under normal circumstances. What time do you have to arrive at work? Is it going to rain in the afternoon? Will parking be available? How much is the transit fare during rush hour? That’s all before Coronavirus impacted daily routines, now people commuting again must think about safety above all else, adding a layer of stress to the mix.

This decision-making process is one that all commuters go through before deciding on the mode choice for the day, and research shows that most commuters tend to choose the convenient option. If all commuters think about is the ease of a commute, they may be missing out on a great opportunity to better themselves. With anxiety and depression rising across the U.S. and commuters slowly beginning to return to the office, let’s take a look at how commute choices can affect mood and the importance of a connected transportation system to commuters mental and physical health.

Mode Matters

In Arlington, Virginia, most commuters are happy with their standard work trips. When interviewed for the 2019 State of the Commute (SOC), Arlington residents overall were satisfied with their commutes, with 64% of people reporting that they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in 2019. When the numbers are broken down by mode choice, a clear picture emerges. Those who commute by primarily biking or walking had the highest satisfaction rating, with 92% rating their satisfaction a 4 or 5. This was followed by bus riders (74%), and Metro riders (68%). Those who drove alone (54%) or carpooled (47%), were the least satisfied.

Active Transportation Leads to Increased Satisfaction

These findings are relatively unsurprising as it has been well documented in academic studies that active transportation leads to a higher commute well-being (CWB), “a multi-item measure of the experience of commuting to work and what influences it.” One theory as to why biking and walking lead to higher satisfaction or CWB is that the commute is relatively predictable. Sudden traffic, a delayed train, or a late carpool driver can cause unwanted stress and can be largely avoided when you are in complete control of your commute. Access to protected bike lanes and well-placed pedestrian crosswalks ensure a safe and often predictable arrival time and are key to adoption of active transportation.

There are also of course many health benefits to having an active commute, which 74% of bikers and walkers who work in Arlington echoed in their responses to the 2019 SOC survey. In a study published in the British Medical Journal over a five-year period, researchers found that bike commuters had a 46% lower risk of developing a heart disease and 52% lower risk of dying from it, while walkers had a 27% lower risk of heart disease and a 36% lower risk of dying from it. The discrepancy in risk is most likely due to distance traveled, suggesting that walkers may not be able to solely rely on their commutes for exercise.

Workaholics Can Be Satisfied Too

It is nearly impossible to read the news or draft an email while riding a bike, but many people enjoy doing it when choosing to commute via transit or by carpooling. Using commute time to catch up on work tasks could make time at the workplace more productive and less stressful. More than half of all regional commuters performed work-related tasks during their commute, 34% “most days”, and 21% “some days.”

This advantage to transit has been found in other studies as well, with researchers from Georgia Tech estimating that “without the advantages of multitasking, these riders would be driving alone.” While commuters who choose to multitask while taking transit may not be getting the same health benefits of those using active transportation, they are boosting their moods in other ways and making the most of their time.

Cars Make a Difference Even if You Don’t Drive Them

So, if commuters can stay healthier while biking or walking to work or multitask while taking transit, why would they lower their overall commute satisfaction by choosing to drive? For many commuters who don’t live in urban environments, it’s simply the only option. Interestingly, even for those that do own a car, the fact that they have the option to drive may decrease overall satisfaction with the transportation network. In the 2019 SOC, there was a clear pattern between Arlington residents’ level of access to a car and their overall satisfaction with transportation. Those who had no personal vehicle in their household ranked satisfaction as a 4 or 5 (very satisfied) at 63%, while those who shared a vehicle ranked satisfaction at 54%. Satisfaction was lowest for those who had full access to a car at 45%.

The responses show that dissatisfaction with the system also grew as access to vehicles increased. This may suggest that the mere option of driving reconfigures the idea of a “transportation system” for commuters.

How to Make the Choice

There are a variety of personal, societal, and location-based factors involved in choosing a commute mode. When commuters have options, these choices become easier.

These options make a difference in commuters’ everyday lives. People who bike that end up getting caught in the rain can put their bikes on bus racks to stay dry, those that walk can enjoy fresh air in the morning but rely on the train to pick them up on time in the evening, and people who carpool can have a smooth and efficient ride in an express lane during rush hour. Local governments and urban planners have a large role to play in how society travels, and by providing options that are interconnected, they can make it easier to choose a commute that provides satisfaction and maybe even happiness for all types of lifestyles.


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