Friday, April 13, 2007

The long ride to work, the long ride home

Evening Commute Madison Guy photo on Flickr

I had to work a bit late last night, so the ride took me home through the Wisconsin countryside at twilight. Sometimes the commute is a hassle. Sometimes it's tedious. Sometimes, when the weather is bad, it can seem life-threatening. But sometimes it's just beautiful. A bit lonely, perhaps, but lovely. Last night it didn't exactly look like this, but it felt like this.

I'm not alone, of course. We're a nation of commuters, and Nick Paumgarten, in "There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter" in this week's New Yorker, takes a long look at commuting in America, including a Cisco engineer who holds the tcurrent title for the longest commute in America -- seven hours round trip.
Seven hours is extraordinary, but four hours, increasingly, is not. Roughly one out of every six American workers commutes more than forty-five minutes, each way. People travel between counties the way they used to travel between neighborhoods. The number of commuters who travel ninety minutes or more each way—known to the Census Bureau as “extreme commuters”—has reached 3.5 million, almost double the number in 1990. They’re the fastest-growing category, the vanguard in a land of stagnant wages, low interest rates, and ever-radiating sprawl. They’re the talk-radio listeners, billboard glimpsers, gas guzzlers, and swing voters, and they don’t—can’t—watch the evening news. Some take on long commutes by choice, and some out of necessity, although the difference between one and the other can be hard to discern. A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices. And time is the vital currency: how much of it you spend—and how you spend it—reveals a great deal about how much you think it is worth.
Paumgarten writes about the emotional, social and personal costs of commuting.
When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller “Bowling Alone,” about the disintegration of American civic life.) “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.”


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.

“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.
I'm not complaining. At a little over 45 minutes each way, my commute is much shorter than many. It's often a peaceful time to organize my thoughts. OK, it's sometimes a peaceful time to organize my thoughts. Sometimes, like last night, it's hauntingly beautiful.

Now, if I could just find a way to blog while I'm driving.

1 comment:

zp said...

I was pretty tempted to do a personal response, like this one, to Paumgarten's commuting essay. He's right about one thing, "Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out . . . you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere . . . people who are normally circumspect may, when describing their commutes, be unexpectedly candid . . ." (58)

We'd have liked more research, less emotion.