I heard years ago that traffic was the number one public complaint. In that light, the following information may not come as a big surprise. However, with the traditional American dream being a big house in the suburbs with a big lawn, the finding that it is not actually worth the long commute may be a surprise to some.
Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer, Swiss economists, coined the term “the commuter’s paradox” a few years ago after they found that people consistently underestimate the inconvenience of a long commute when choosing where to live and end up less happy as a result of it.
In their analysis, Frey and Stutzer found that to be as content with their life as a person who walks to their job, a person with a one-hour commute needs to have a 40% higher income.
In another study, Daniel Kahneman and Alan Krueger surveyed 900 working men in Texas and found that, by far, the least enjoyable part of their day was their commute.
Some have found that one reason why commuting is so unpleasant is because of it variability. Jonah Lehrer writes: “Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it’s a painful ritual we never get used to – the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don’t habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, ‘Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.'”
In my life, I have both driven about 45 minutes to and from work and bicycled about 45 minutes to and from work. And, personally, I found bicycling tremendously more enjoyable. This was before I became focused on bicycling as a professional interest and, truthfully, since I was a child I have never really bicycled as a hobby. I have bicycled for transportation purposes in many places and greatly enjoyed it but never extended that to something I do solely for fun. I don’t know what the research says on this matter, but I think I discovered what most people would, that using the bicycle for transportation (for the same amount of time) was much more enjoyable than driving.
Coming back to the commuter’s paradox, why do people make the mistake of opting for a longer commute and a bigger house even though, for most people, it will make them less happy?
Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis from Radboud University hypothesizes that it is due to a classic misunderstanding or mis-weighing of important variables.
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. “People will think about this trade-off for a long time,” Dijksterhuis says. “And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad.” What’s interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They’ll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: “The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while.”
In the end, I think it comes down to a few things.
1) We discount the importance of habits. Habitual actions have a huge impact on our lives (and on the world), yet we often forget about them or give them less importance when we are considering two options (since they are habits and, by definition, things we do with little or no thought).
2) We give more value to things than to time. We think it is worth the time doing something we don’t like to get something we want, but, in reality, I think that may be an illusion.
3) We are attached to an idea of what “the good life” is that is actually incorrect. Whether it be from socialization or from some natural human inclinations, many people think a big house with a big yard is the dream they should be working towards. However, getting that at the expense of hundreds of hours a year commuting seems like it is actually a bad deal.
Some of these thoughts have been supported with scientific research, and some are just thoughts off the top of my head. Hopefully, they shed some light on the scale that we are using to weigh some of the key practical choices in our lives.