Driving can give you more control over your commute than public transportation. However, it also comes with unpredictability like traffic jams, accidents, poor weather, and road ragers, plus the added cost of owning, maintaining, repairing, and buying gas for a car.
“Our land-use policies have created automobile dependency because of single-use zoning and suburban sprawl, which basically separates where people live from every place they would like to go,” said James Sallis, a professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health. “So we’ve created a system that enforces driving and removes options for walking and biking, meanwhile there are very limited options for public transit — and the difference in health impacts for cars versus active transportation are huge.”
A 2014 study of more than 3,400 people in Canada found that greater time spent commuting in a car was associated with lower life satisfaction and increased feelings of time pressure.
Richard Schmitz can relate. The 47-year-old used to drive from Northern Virginia into Washington, DC, every day for work, an unpredictable commute that ranged anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on weather, accidents, and other traffic events, he told BuzzFeed News.
“Just the impact on time was enormous,” he said, so much so that he switched jobs, and now only spends 15 minutes in the car and has the option of taking several routes if one is too busy.
“I certainly do not stress about whether or not I’m going to be on time for work or whether I’m going to have to deal with challenges of navigating,” Schmitz said. “Getting that time back has been the largest benefit for me.”
He’s not wrong for wanting to avoid that DC commute. The traffic jam is making a comeback there and in other cities, according to new data sent to BuzzFeed News from the navigation app Waze. The nation’s capital experienced the largest increase in traffic in the last eight months, up 12.5% in March 2022 compared with last July. Houston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are the top runners-up.
How commuting can harm your health
Of course, none of this is good news, because sitting in traffic can expose you to unsafe levels of air pollution that contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular issues, according to the CDC. One 2007 study found that 33% to 45% of Los Angeles residents’ total exposure to ultrafine particulate matter occurs during car travel.
These tiny particles can worsen asthma and lung disease, and air pollution generated by cars can also contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone.
A study of over 4,000 people in Texas found that those who drove longer distances to work had a higher likelihood of obesity and high blood pressure, and were less likely to achieve the recommended amounts of daily physical activity.
This makes sense, Sallis told BuzzFeed News, because sitting down for extended periods of time while commuting promotes a sedentary lifestyle that can contribute to illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that workers who spend an hour or more commuting each day are more than three times more likely to deem their travels “very or somewhat” stressful. Another 2015 survey found that commuters in major European cities said their work travels are more stressful than their actual jobs.
Research also shows your social life can suffer the longer your commute. People who spent more than 20 minutes traveling to work were more likely to have less time for “socially-oriented trips,” such as visits to friends and family, exercising or playing sports, attending weddings, and going to religious celebrations.
This, of course, may hurt relationships too. A 2011 survey of people in Sweden found that long-distance commuters face a 40% higher risk of separating from their partners.
Not to mention, the time spent commuting can cut at the time you could spend sleeping.
A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that each additional hour of commute time equaled 15 minutes of sleep loss, which, over time, may contribute to anxiety, brain fog, and potentially a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.