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

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.

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

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.

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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.)