Thursday, January 21, 2010

Extreme commuting

I have myself commuted 350 kilometers by rail on both a weekly and daily basis for a period of more than a year. It was tough. It is possible to justify in various ways, but it is still exhausting in the long run. I had an agreement with my employer to work 80% (4 days per week), of which I worked from home one day per week, so in reality I “only” performed my daily commute three days per week. It was tiring enough. The train left the central station at 7.15 and came back 18.45. Add a 30 minute trip to this to get to and from the central train station. That means I came home at 19.15 on a Tuesday evening and had to leave home 6.45 the next day. When you come home relatively late and know that you have to get up early the next day, you are not so keen to do things or meet friends in the evenings (what’s left of it after you have had dinner that is). 

During this period, I had one child in kindergarten. My wife had to leave and pick him up during the three days I was gone every week (short days at a demanding job for her part). I did the same thing during the two days I was in Stockholm every week. I mostly used the two-hour train journey to sleep or to work. During that period of my life, I fit the category of "extreme commuters" - a category (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau) referring to those who travel at least 90 minutes to get to work (and thus spend at least 3 hours per day commuting). 

The average time it takes to travel to your work in the U.S. is 25 minutes. One in six (19 million persons) need more than 45 minutes to get to work and nearly 3.5 million Americans are extreme commuters (3% of the workforce). Most of those live near a handful of mega-cities (if you can use the term "near" when you daily travel for hours to get to and from your workplace). Paradoxically, the states in the U.S. where people spend the least time commuting to work are also some of the most sparsely populated states (South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana). In New York, people spend twice as much time to get to their jobs as in South Dakota - a state in which 800 000 persons live in an area that is almost as big as half of Sweden. (Sweden is by European standards a relatively large and sparsely populated country, but there are still more than 9 million people living here.) Similarly, it is possible that people on average spend less time getting to their jobs far up in sparsly populated northern Sweden than around Stockholm. 

From 1990 an on, extreme commuters have been the fastest growing segment of commuters in the U.S., and the number of extreme commuters doubled between 1990 and 2005. What were the driving forces behind this development? Do remember that extreme commuters travel no less than three hours per day, but some can spend four, five or six hours traveling to and from their jobs. 

A 2006 competition for "America’s longest commute" was won by a man who had driven 600 km to and from his job as an engineer at Cisco in San Jose (California) daily since 1989. He left home at 4.30 every morning and the trip took at best three hours. The return trip could take four or five hours (more traffic) and he was usually home between 20.00 and 20.30 in the evenings. His commute was bearable thanks to ad-free satellite radio and audio books. And thanks to coffee we may assume, as he drank "about nine" cups on each trip, and squeezed in a total of 30 cups of coffee each day. Winning the competition was an eye-opener, but he was on the whole satisfied with living on a horse ranch next to the beautiful Yosemite National Park. A woman who had taken the same decision and made the same trade-offs was portrayed in a longer (highly recommended) story in The New Yorker. She lives in a nice house, but the quality of her everyday life is by most standards poor:

“She gave up cooking some years ago. Now she gets home, feeds her dogs, then heats up soup or pizza she buys at a pizzeria on weekends. She takes a shower and goes to bed, maybe watching a taped episode of "CSI". ”

Then there is also this story of 42 commuters who sit down together on the 5 a.m. bus and arrive to New York City two hours later. There is of course always someone who is more extreme, such as Greg Wixted who commutes between London and Dubai each week (if you can call it communing?). 

There are several more or less good reasons to commute long distances. Perhaps your spouse works closer to home, but your job is far away? Maybe you've always yearned for a rural lifestyle? But the strongest driving force behind extreme commuting in the United States has been a desire for better quality of life (!) and the wish to have your own little piece of the American dream; to buy a nice house with a big lawn in a nice area with good schools, low crime, clean and decent neighbors and soccer practice for the kids on Saturday mornings. The payoff is alluring to many, but the costs are high: 

" ‘Drive until you qualify’ is a phrase that real-estate agents use to describe a central tenet of the commuting life: you travel away from the workplace until you reach an exit where you can afford to buy a house that meets your standards. The size of the wallet determines that of the mortgage, and therefore the length of the commute. [..] in this equation you're trading time for space, miles for square feet. " 

For each exit I pass on the highway, and for every mile I drive away from the city, the price of houses decrease by several thousands of dollars. Fewer cars around the neighborhood (think of the children!) is ironically another reason to move far away from the city - even if the most mundane errand then requires a trip by car, and even though each of my trips contribute to more cars in the neighborhood. Eventually I reach the point where even my modest income is enough to realize my dreams of home ownership. If I do not earn enough, I drive a bit further, and if I want a bigger house, I drive a bit further again. Some can not afford to live near their jobs and look for housing in the exurbs, "the suburbs of the suburbs". For others the allure is "big city salary, small town living". Regardless of the reasons, nothing has until recently been able to stop this trend of moving further and further away from the city center (see for example the report “Communing in America” (2006) by the Transportation Research Board). 

Many of those who have made the decision to live far away from the city have taken this decision primarily based on economic grounds. Unfortunately, many have put themselves in a quandary by buying the biggest and nicest house they can afford, instead of something more modest, a bit smaller and with a more affordable price tag. Once you've bought the most expensive house you can afford, you can no longer afford to resign from your distant and (relatively) well-paid job. Even if there are jobs available closer to home, the salary would not be enough to cover the costs of your big house. Nearby small-town jobs offer small-town salaries. Regardless of how tough the commute is, you will no longer have the choice not to spend hours each day commuting to and from your job. The basic problem I describe here is of course not unique to extreme commuters - anyone can overspend on an apartment or a house - which down the road can limit job and life choices. It doesn’t even have to be a house, it can just as easily be a car, boat, summer cottage or many small purchases that add up on your credit card. 

Everyone can understand that it is not good to financially overextend yourself, thereby painting yourself into a corner, but other effects of extreme commuting are more difficult to predict. Studies indicate that people overestimate what they get from their commute (money, gadgets, luxury - material wealth) and underestimate what they lose (social contacts, hobbies, health - social welfare). Negative effects on mental and physical health ("Commuting is also associated with raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased hostility, lateness, absenteeism, and adverse effects on cognitive performance") could perhaps be guessed at (although many believe that it of course doesn’t apply to them).

Really shocking to me however is the fact that the American sociologist Robert Putnam believes that your social contacts decrease by 10% for each extra 10 minutes of communing. A person who walks for a few minutes to get to her job would thus have almost twice as many social contact as someone who spends an hour getting to her job. When commuting continues year in and year out, the many long hours away from home can also lead to family and marital problems. 

If we move on to the psychological consequences, I’m sure few have given them any thought before they decide to take on the extreme commute. People often say they appreciate the time alone in the car. It is possible to gather your thoughts, listen to music, radio, or an audiobook. But the driver's seat is a lonely place. People behave the same way in a car as if they were alone in a room or as if they were socially isolated. One symptom is the extremely aggressive behavior that some drivers fall into ("road rage"). 

"Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. [...] When you are commuting by car [...] You are not spending time with other people. [...] Two hours or more of leisure time [...] are now passed in solitude. " 

I wrote above that "regardless of the reasons, nothing has until recently been able to stop this trend." Several of the texts I link to are a few years old. But as of two years ago, you suddenly see a variety of reasons for why the trend to move further and further away, and to travel longer and longer distances, has reached the end of the road (sic!). The housing market has collapsed in the U.S. and the conditions for getting a loan have toughened up. Gasoline prices shot through the roof in 2008 and will go up again. Unemployment is high. It has become much more difficult to finance a new car. Some have begun to see the benefits of living more densely and to be able to perform everyday errands on foot. And climate change can set tough new standards on cars and emissions in the future. All of this - and more generally the effects of the economic crisis – acts in concert to now suppress extreme commuting in the United States. It is naturally the houses that are the farthest away (from everything) that have lost most in value when prices start to fall: 

"houses priced the same in 2006 [...] but in different parts of a city were selling for dramatically different amounts a year later depending on their distance from the center of town" 

The dream of owning your own house has gone to pieces for the Discianno family. It turned out that the family had overextended themselves financially and had to leave their house - but the daily four-hour commute remains. More dreary stories can be found in "Long-distance commuters' trip to nowhere." To live far, far away has gone from being affordable to expensive due to several interacting factors. The effects of last summer's oil price shock is summarized by the caption "Fuel prices shift math for life in far suburbs": 

"Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the distant edges of metropolitan areas. [...] The rising cost of energy is now a primary factor pushing home prices down in the suburbs, particularly in the outer rings." 

Much of what is written above can gently be adapted to Swedish conditions. Many cities an hour away from Stockholm by train have become "possible to live in" as the X2000 high-speed train network has extended its reach during the last two decades. But what is interesting about the United States is that it is possible to find so much that from a Swedish perspective seems extreme. In the U.S. 90% of all people travel to their jobs by car and 85% or those commuters drive alone. Three out of four Americans thus travel to their jobs alone in a car. Or take the "city" of Phoenix in Arizona. "The city alone covers 517 square miles. Surrounding it is 14.000 square miles of desert dotted by seas of rooftops." All of Sweden is only 12 times larger than Phoenix and its suburbs. In fact, the whole of the Netherlands (14 200 square miles and with a population of over 16 million inhabitants) is on par with Phoenix-plus-suburbs. Extreme. Grotesque. Untenable. 

At this point I however have to confess that I've written about two different phenomena in this text. The first is the phenomenon of extreme commuting – no matter if it is being conducted by car, bus, train or plane. To travel for hours each day has an effect on the individual and on society. But the question of the environmental and economical sustainability of extreme commuting is a different question. It may be that the long distance train commute can continue for a long time after trips of similar length by car (in distance or time) has become an impossibility for most people. Many long-distance commuters in the Stockholm region travel by rail. They may suffer the same effects on physical and mental health as extreme car commuters in the U.S., but their commute is less unsustainable than driving a gas-guzzling car (or worse, a SUV or pick-up truck) alone and for hours on end every day. 

This blog is called "Life after oil". It is obvious to me (but not apparent in most texts about extreme commuting), that if gasoline becomes significantly more expensive after the oil peak, it will be far too expensive to commute alone by car for hours on a daily basis. If/when the flow of oil starts to dry up just a little, the gas prices will hit the roof again and many will suffer – and Americans are more vulnerable than Europeans.

What many may not think of is that the suburbs as a phenomenon - the very idea of working in, but living outside of the city - was an impossibility before we started to build light rail in the second half of the 1800s. To begin with, this was an option only available for the wealthiest of businessmen. Llewellyn Park outside New York was the first modern suburb (1853). Small residential communities grew up along the new railroad tracks that snaked their way out of the city in different directions. With the widespread adoption of the car, it was suddenly possible to "fill the gaps" and develop the city in all directions (regardless of direction of the diverging rail tracks).

If it becomes significantly more expensive to own and drive a car in the future, areas far away from the city, and especially those with poor access to public transportation, will be considerably less attractive, or atrophy. I believe that extreme commuting by car will become a rarity in Sweden and the United States in a not too distant future. The future of extreme commuting by bus and train is harder to predict, but well worth keeping an eye on (I might come back to this topic in a future blog post).

Changes start in the periphery. One can get glimpses of the future by looking for isolated observations, thoughts and trends that may at first seem insignificant or sometimes bizarre - but that is part of a larger puzzle. It is a pity that mainstream media rarely writes about such issues, but rather heavily covers current events in detail but often without placing them in a comprehensible context.


  1. Fuck the children and fuck your 350km commute.

    People like you are the problem. I have no commute, no car and no children.

    People like me are the solution.

  2. I commute 25 minutes each way by bicycle. I could make it briefer, but I don't like to rush. Sometimes I think about the time I use in the commute, but then I realize that I'm getting exercise which in the morning is invigorating, and in the afternoon stress-releasing, I think.

  3. I can relate very well to this post. I lived 33 years in Phoenix and moved 4 times, each time further from my work just to have that bigger house. In the end I was 3 hours a day (on a good day) in some of the worst traffic imaginable. On one occasion I even had a handgun pointed at my head by an enraged driver. Some days after a particularly bad commute it would take an hour just to get my heart rate and blood pressure back to normal. The mental and physical toll was immense.

    I now live in Prague, CZ and walk to work in 15 minutes. I don't even own a car (my friends and family back in the states can't even imagine life without one). I will never go back to the way it was, I'd be dead of a heart attack in a year.

  4. "People like you are the problem. I have no commute, no car and no children."

    What exactly are you having problems with here? Children? Trins? Blogs?

    Nowadays I'm a 20-minute subway ride away from my job. Does that solve the problem?

    "I commute 25 minutes each way by bicycle"

    That's what I ought to do, but then I'd have to compete with cars while crossing central Stockholm. Also, it's not so attractive right now when we have loads of snow.

    Dug, at first I couldn't figure out which State CZ was... :-) Anyway, Prague is a beautiful city, one of my favorites.

    "my friends and family back in the states can't even imagine life without one"

    The fact that people can't even *imagine* such a life is a problem in itself. It will make things very painful when more people are "foreclosured" out of car ownership.


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