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Yes, ditching the car for your commute to work improves well-being

REUTERS/Mike Segar
The researchers found that the psychological wellbeing of commuters who switched from driving to walking, cycling or taking public transport improved significantly.

When commuters stop driving and start walking or cycling to work, their psychological well-being tends to significantly improve, according to a British study published Monday in the journal Preventive Medicine.

The study also reports a similar finding for commuters who ditch their car for public transport.

“These results appear to suggest that avoiding car driving may be beneficial to wellbeing,” write the study’s authors. “This view complements existing evidence of a negative association between driving and physical health and is consistent with the hypothesis that car driving (a non-passive travel mode that requires constant concentration) can give rise to boredom, social isolation and stress.”

The results also suggest that psychological well-being should be considered when government officials are doing cost-benefit assessments of transportation policies, say the researchers.

A before-and-after comparison

It’s long been known that moderate-intensity walking, cycling and other physical activity is associated with both physical and psychological well-being, but most of that research has involved activity not undertaken while traveling to and from work.

Earlier this year, a study conducted by another group of British researchers at the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that any type of long commute to work (but particularly those by bus) increased anxiety and lowered people’s sense of happiness and being satisfied with life. That study also made the controversial finding that active commuting (walking or cycling) had a negative impact on those psychological factors when the active commute was less than 30 minutes.

The new study, however, does not compare the well-being of commuters who are using different modes of travel at a particular moment in time. Instead, it looks at people’s psychological well-being before and after they switch from car travel to active travel or public transportation.

For the new study, health economists from the University of East Anglia and the University of York examined data collected from almost 18,000 commuters who were participating in the ongoing British Household Panel Survey, an annual survey of adults aged 18 to 65. Part of the survey involves answering 12 questions related to psychological health, including ones aimed at assessing the participants’ perceptions of their own worthlessness, unhappiness, stress and inability to make decisions.

The researchers found that the psychological well-being of commuters who switched from driving to walking, cycling or taking public transport improved significantly — even after adjusting for other changes in daily life that affect well-being, such as having children, moving to a new house, switching jobs, or a rise or fall in income.

Specifically, the study found that people tended to report being better able to concentrate at work and being under less strain when they gave up commuting by car. That was as true among the people who started taking the bus or train to work as among those who started cycling or walking.

‘It appears to cheer people up’

 “You might think that things like disruption to services or crowds of commuters might have been a cause of considerable stress,” said Adam Martin, the study’s lead author and a professor of health economics at the University of East Anglia, in a press release. “But as buses or trains also give people time to relax, read, socialize, and there is usually an associated walk to the bus stop or railway station, it appears to cheer people up.”

The study also found that time spent commuting was important.

“The longer people spend commuting in cars, the worse their psychological well-being,” said Martin. “And correspondingly, people feel better when they have a longer walk to work.”

The study appears in the Sept. 15 issue of Preventive Medicine. (Note: Because of a technical glitch, the study has been temporarily withdrawn from the website, but should be back up soon.)

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 09/16/2014 - 09:56 am.


    just looking at that picture makes me cranky

  2. Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 09/16/2014 - 10:29 am.

    I guess they did

    Asked and answered:

    Health Benefits
    Wonder if anyone’s done a study on the health benefits of not having to fight rush hour morning traffic. I can’t be the only one whose blood pressure seems a few points higher from having to fight the daily deluge of dumb drivers.

    I myself, am of course a perfect and courteous driver at all times.

    But seriously, I show up to work in a much worse mood after dealing with traffic for half an hour. This comment section is a great example of why we need multi-modal transit and transparent subsidies/funding mechanisms for each. Then everyone can make decisions based on their own preferences, destinations, finances, and road rage problems.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/16/2014 - 11:06 am.

    Twenty six miles would have been a long walk

    or even a long bike. Not everyone lives within walking or biking distance.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2014 - 01:28 pm.

    Bill, Luke and Jody

    …all make valid points. I certainly agree that the Twin Cities desperately needs – but does not have – a multimodal transit system with transparent funding mechanisms and sources. I avoid downtown St. Paul AND Minneapolis whenever I can because of traffic, Metro Transit signs near my house convey no information whatsoever except that a bus of some sort stops at the sign. Nothing about where it might be coming from, where it might be going, or when it might do either or both of those things. And it won’t do to dismiss Jody Rooney’s comment by casually suggesting that the obvious answer is to “move closer.” Many areas in the Twin Cities that have substantial numbers of jobs are neither zoned nor built out for residential development of the density necessary to eliminate the need for a car, and to support financially the operation of public transit. That’s a planning flaw that was a couple generations in the making.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/16/2014 - 01:58 pm.

    It’s a choice

    ” Not everyone lives within walking or biking distance.”

    But they did choose to live a long distance from work, which is both ecologically damaging and detrimental to personal well-being due to the stress it creates every day.

    “reported that any type of long commute … increased anxiety and lowered people sense of happiness and being satisfied with life.”

    Choices have consequences.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/16/2014 - 10:31 pm.


      When you can figure out the logistics of translocating a few hundred million people or so form the evil burbs and rural areas to the urban core of your choosing your point might have merit. As it stands we work with reality as it is, not as we think it should be. Simply saying move or shut up is a lazy and non productive answer to solving anything.

  6. Submitted by Jan Barosh on 10/02/2014 - 05:34 pm.


    I can personally attest to this. I don’t own a car by my choice. A friend loaned me her car while she was out of town for 2 days. Leaving for work at the same time, I was excited because I would have extra time for an errand stop or 2. Instead I found that as traffic slowed me down I had to keep readjusting my plans until it finally became clear that my errand stop time was gone. The shocker came when I was trying to find parking and having no success I was worried about being late to work.

    Finally I pulled into a parking ramp knowing the parking fee would really cut into the day’s wages. The attendant must have seen the look of extreme distress on my face because he asked if I would like the early bird rate (bless him for stretching the time limit on that one).

    After two days of this I couldn’t wait to get back on the bus where instead of worrying about traffic and parking, I could relax, read, catch up on email or even take a nap if I woke up a little tired from a late night. I’ve also met some wonderful people and had great conversations with other riders on occasion. I love the bus and I will never give up my bus pass. It keeps me sane.

    Oh yes, the other benefit of riding the bus is I get a little walking in every day. This same friend loaned me her car for a month one time. I gained several pounds that month. The only change was taking the car instead of the bus. Multiply that by 12 months each year. The bus definitely helps me stay in shape.

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