How does commuting influence personal wellbeing? Reaching a consensus

We were delighted to welcome a group of expert speakers and delegates to our academic symposium on commuting and wellbeing, which we held at UWE Bristol on Friday 23rd June 2017. 

The aim of the day was to share the latest international research on the impacts of commuting on personal wellbeing, to discuss the knowledge that has been gained and the gaps that remain and to reflect on the contribution of this topic area to social and economic policy. The programme included six presentations from academics currently active in the field (summarised below), followed by a roundtable discussion.

The discussions highlighted a number of areas of agreement in the literature, but also some complex areas of debate.  For example, a number of independently conducted international studies of commuting and wellbeing have shown a link between active commuting (walking and cycling) and both (i) higher satisfaction with the journey experience and (ii) higher subjective wellbeing overall.

There is also consistent evidence to suggest that females feel the negative effects of commuting more strongly than do males, which is interpreted as being a consequence of the additional caring responsibilities typically undertaken by female partners. However, there appears to be conflicting evidence over whether or not longer duration commutes are linked to lower life satisfaction overall. Such a relationship would imply that people are not being fully compensated (through for example income) for commuting.

The discussions also covered broader policy issues and considered the changing role of commuting in 21st century lifestyles – for example flexible working patterns are disrupting the notion of a ritually repeated 5-day commute and labour market volatility has also increased the frequency with which people change employment. These trends have the potential to alter relationships between commuting and different aspects of personal wellbeing.

Our intention is to now synthesise the key issues raised over the course of the day in a ‘consensus statement’ which we will later publish on our website.

Summary of presenter contributions

Louise Reardon (University of Leeds) opened the day with a critical examination of the wellbeing agenda in government policy. She explained that wellbeing polices have been traditionally led by the public health sector, and highlighted an important opportunity for transport policy given that commuting has not to date been recognised as a target intervention in wellbeing policies. Louise’s presentation is available here.

Dick Ettema (Utrecht University) – a pioneer of wellbeing research in the transport field – synthesised evidence from a series of studies that he has conducted across continental Europe. These have confirmed for example, that active commuters are generally more satisfied with their journey experience than other commuters and that satisfaction with the commute is also linked to overall subjective wellbeing – suggesting that commuting is an appropriate target for wellbeing interventions. His research also revealed what features of the commute journey improve the experience. Dick’s presentation is available here.

Samuel Chng (Singapore University of Technology and Design) presented findings from his case study of commuting in London. This also showed higher life satisfaction being linked to walking to work, and that bus and underground commuters were more satisfied with life than train users. Samuel also emphasised the importance of recognising cultural differences, which may give rise to geographic differences in the relationships between commuting and wellbeing e.g. an hour long commute may be normal and acceptable in some cities / countries, but not others. Samuel’s presentation is available here.

Jonas De Vos (Ghent University) presented evidence from his research on the mechanisms through which leisure travel satisfaction influences overall wellbeing. His research has revealed, for instance that stressful journeys have overspill effects at the journey destination, which reduces satisfaction with the activities undertaken at the destination. This in turn leads to reductions in life satisfaction overall. He also showed that residential preferences matter in the relationship between travel behaviour and personal wellbeing. Jonas’ presentation is available here.

Susan Handy (University of California, Davis) presented an analysis of levels of journey related stress and enjoyment and travel satisfaction amongst students and staff working at the UC Davis university campus. This revealed that students (females particularly) found their journeys to be more stressful than staff and that cyclists were more satisfied with their travel mode than other commuters. Rail commuters travelling from outside Davis also had high satisfaction levels which can be explained by the high quality of the service provided.  Susan recommended a twin-track approach to improve commuting satisfaction by encouraging a shift to well-liked modes (which also requires ensuring that switchers develop a liking for them) and improving the quality of poorly-liked modes. Susan’s presentation is available here.

Ben Clark (University of the West of England) and Adam Martin (University of Leeds) concluded the presentations by summarising the latest findings from our current commuting and wellbeing project. We have been focussing on what happens to different measures of personal wellbeing when people change commute duration or mode. This has revealed that increasing commute durations from one year to the next are associated with reduced satisfaction with leisure time availability, increased strain and reduced job satisfaction. The impacts are not felt straightaway but build over time. Also, switching from driving to walking / cycling is associated with increased satisfaction with leisure time availability, reduced strain and increased job satisfaction. Our presentation is available here.