The Columbia Critic

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Commuting and Mass Transit

Paumgarten, N. "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again". The New Yorker, 2007-04-16.

This article appeared in this week's issue of the New Yorker, and I found it to be quite telling about our modern day state of living.

It details the commuting practices of people across the country and describes the effects that increasing average commute times are having on society. Among the subjects are riders of the incessantly congested Atlanta beltway driving from edge city to edge city and avoiding the downtown city itself at all costs; seemingly efficient yet rare carpoolers who share a van daily from Georgia to Tennessee on a countryside route the congestion along which seems entirely out of place; and a woman who commutes three and a half hours each way between Pennsylvania and her New York City law firm simply so that she may enjoy her own 'countryside' suburban paradise. In the most extreme category were commuters such as the Cisco Systems engineer who travels three hundred and seventy two miles each day from the Sierra foothills to San Jose and back, while among the notably happier and more comfortable end of the spectrum were those who made use of mass transit.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam was "Shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is. There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

One might question what, then, might compel a person to drive over two hours, for example, to reach work in a bustling city and then to drive over two hours back to arrive home within a suburban enclave nearly a hundred miles away. The primary cause is the provision of space and lifestyle. Generally, in commuting these great distances, one trades "time for space, miles for square feet." Anyone who has lived a significant time in a New York City apartment has no doubt experienced at least a small pang of envy after hearing about an old friend or acquaintance's recent purchase of a 4-bed 3-bath house in the suburbs when, just a few years back, he or she lived in the same 400SqFt closet-like studio that you did. Little does one realize that what happiness has been gained in square footage or impressive architectural grandeur is often lost in hours of solitary commute time with only a cup of coffee and the incessant vociferations of Rush Limbaugh for company.

"Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman, relying on equations like U=α+ß1D+ß2D²+γX+δ1w+δ2w²+δ3log y.) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated."

Interestingly, the article notes that "commuter-wise, New York City is an anomaly. New Yorkers have the highest average journey-to-work times (thirty-nine minutes) of any city in the country, but are apparently much happier with their commutes than people are elsewhere." This can be explained quite easily by noting the one apparatus that differantiates the New York city commute from nearly all other commutes in this country - the train.

Public transit is, overwhelmingly, the principal means of travel for New Yorkers. About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York and its suburbs. Over 65% of those who commute to the city from surrounding areas do so via mass transit. Contrast this with the rest of the nation, in which 90% of all commuters drive automobiles to their workplace. New York is the only city in the United States where more than half of all households do not own a car (in Manhattan, the number rises to 75%; nationally, the percentage is 8%).

Psychologically and sociologically, travel by mass transit differs from private automobile in a number of ways. First, there is the shared experience of the train commute. Human beings are social animals, and thus generally crave human contact. It gives us comfort, even pleasure, to encounter others and to observe them in their daily lives. Even though travelling with others does not necessarily evoke in-depth conversation or even a high degree of personal interaction, the shared experience does much to civilize us. One does not often hear commuters on a train shouting expletives at one another in the fashion that may often be heard in the privacy of an automobile on the freeway. Face to face interactions and both verbal and non-verbal communication generally prevents the mass-transit equivalent of road-rage from occurring.

Second, travel by mass transit allows one various opportunities for relaxation that are simply not available to car drivers. Whether one wishes to take the time to read a chapter from a book, glance at the Wall Street Journal, watch an episode of the Simpsons on an iPod, or take a twenty-minute nap, the abdication of responsibility for the control and guidance of the vehicle grants one the opportunity to enjoy the commute by any number of recreational means. While some may cite the freedom granted by car travel - to go wherever one pleases whenever one pleases - careful consideration will lead most to the realization that the vast majority of their time is spent following a precise route, on a precise schedule, to and from the same locations. In addition, most of those who espouse the superiority of automotive travel have likely never encountered the New York City transit system, which is far more extensive than any other in the country and meets the needs of the vast majority of the city's residents and commuters.

Finally, mass transit travel is simply healthier than automotive travel. This is largely due to the fact that those who mass-commute are likely to to a great deal more walking than those who drive. Upon reaching the parking lot, drivers likely have no more than a few hundred feet to walk from their car to their place of business (the exception being locales such as the Pentagon where the parking lot alone is the size of a small town). Conversely, unless one's workplace is directly above the train or subway station, users of mass transit are likely forced to walk a few blocks to reach their workplace. Such physical activity leads to a much healthier lifestyle, greater overall wellbeing, and may indicate why New York City is one of the thinnest cities in the nation.

Mass transit is also healthier for the environment. Transporting hundreds of individuals on a single electrically-powered train is far more efficient than moving over two tons of steel per person, by internal combustion, to transport individuals to their final destinations. As a result of this increased efficiency, the average New Yorker consumes just half of the energy consumed by the average American per year, and just a fraction of the petroleum.

All of this offers a great deal of supporting evidence to the common conviction of residents that life in New York City is simply healthier and more pleasant than that of much of suburbia. What the average New Yorker gives up in space and private property, he or she gains in health and sanity.

Paumgarten, N. "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again". The New Yorker, 2007-04-16. Retrieved on 2007-04-16

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "NHTS 2001 Highlights Report, BTS03-05", 2001. Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "The MTA Network". Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Pisarski, A. "Commuting in America III: Commuting Facts", Transportation Research Board, 2006-10-16. Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Stutzer, A., Bruno, F., "Stress that doesn't pay: the commuting paradox", IZA Discussion Papers, Institute for the Study of Labor, 2004-09-01. Retrieved on 2007-04-15


  • At 6:24 PM, Anonymous Christine Anderson said…

    I work for the Spec and I'm looking for an article similar to your post. I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a 700-900 word opinion article about how you think the MTA fare hike affects these commuters.
    Get back to me at


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