This article is part of a series about the past, present, and future of commuting in America.
Commuting sucks. But it doesn't suck equally for everyone.
You might assume that the length of your commute is the main thing that affects how pleasant or nightmarish it is. But a number of studies show that the mode of transportation you take is also really important — both in terms of how happy (or unhappy) you are with your commute, and your overall chance of obesity.
This sort of analysis of commute mode is still fairly new. But a recent Canadian study sorted people by mode of travel — walking, biking, driving, bus, intercity train, and intracity metro — and found that people who walk, bike, or take the intercity train are more satisfied with their commutes than others.
Meanwhile, a British study found that people who walk, bike, or take any form of public transit have lower rates of obesity than people who drive, after controlling for other forms of exercise and socioeconomic factors.
Which types of commutes are happiest?
For the satisfaction study, researchers at McGill University polled 3,377 students, staff, and faculty on the forms of transportation they used to get to the downtown Montreal campus, as well as their levels of satisfaction with various aspects of their commutes (such as travel time, comfort, safety from traffic, safety from crime, unwanted attention, cost, and waiting time).
When the researchers combined all the numbers, they found two rough tiers of overall commuting satisfaction: commuters who walked, biked, or took the intercity train, and commuters who drove, or took the bus or local metro.
They also looked more deeply at the various factors that affect the variation between people and found some interesting trends.
Travel time obviously matters: on the whole, people with longer commutes were less satisfied with them. But to walkers, bikers, and bus riders, an extra ten minutes of commuting only reduced satisfaction by about half as much as it did for drivers, or metro or train riders.
Having a point of comparison also made a difference. Commuters who only take the bus in bad weather were 4.9 percentage points less satisfied with it than people who bussed all the time.
Finally, on metro, men were 3.5 percent more satisfied with their commutes than women, largely due to the increased levels of safety and reduced unwanted attention they experienced.
Of course, all these findings only apply to a relatively small group of commuters in Montreal. But other work has arrived at similar conclusions, at least when it comes to the benefits of active commuting.
A 2010 study conducted in Hamilton, Ontario, found that bikers and walkers were more satisfied with their commutes than anyone else, as did a nationwide Canadian survey done the same year. (Canadians seem to be much better at studying this sort of thing than Americans, perhaps because the vast majority of us drive.)
Which types of commutes are healthiest?
A study by British researchers looked at a different sort of metric correlated with different modes of transportation: obesity. Their data came from a set of 7,534 people across the UK who'd both given information about their mode of commuting, and had their body mass assessed as part of a nationwide long-term survey.
For drivers, the researchers' findings are sobering: commuters who take any form of transportation besides driving their own cars had a significantly lower chance of being obese, even when (non-commuting) exercise, age, and other health factors were taken into account.
On average, male drivers had BMIs that were about one point higher than non-drivers, and female drivers had BMIs about 0.75 points higher than non-drivers (these and all following numbers are controlled for confounding factors). This might not seem like a lot, but considering that it occurs when comparing groups of people who get the same amount of exercise otherwise, it shows just how big the impact of building exercise into your commute can be in the long term.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this study is how it shows that ultimately, taking a bus or train might be just as good for your health as biking or walking to work — perhaps because you usually have to walk to get to the station at either end of your commute.
Users of public transit had 1.46 percent (for females) or 1.48 percent (for males) less body fat than drivers. These numbers were 1.37 and 1.35, respectively, for bikers and walkers. In other words, public transit users actually had lower amounts of body fat than so-called "active" commuters.
This may be because the "active" commuters get more exercise otherwise, and that non-commuting exercise is controlled for in the analysis. But it shows that just doing anything other than driving your own car to get to work makes way more of a difference than specifically choosing an "active" commuting form.
Now, it's important to note that this is a correlation, not a causation. There could be other factors involved that the researchers failed to account for. But previous work has shown that people who walk or bike to work also have lower rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It seems that not driving has all sorts of positive health benefits.
The caveat: most people don't have a daily choice
Census data tells us that a huge percentage of Americans commute by car — way more than all other modes combined.
This isn't exactly because people choose to commute by car — it's because many of us don't have a choice on a daily basis. In many places, there's a tradeoff between living closer to work (enabling a person to bike or walk) and paying less in rent, or having more space. Similarly, most American cities simply don't have the public transit infrastructure to convey lots of people who live far from their places of work, and some places even make it tough for people who live close to their offices to walk to work.
But we do have a choice in the long term — both as individuals (when thinking about moving farther away from our workplaces for bigger houses) and as cities (when considering the relative benefits of highways versus public transit, and the cost of infrastructure that allows biking and walking). This sort of research emphasizes just how important alternate forms of transportation might be.