The Best Ways to Get to Work, According to Science

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

Commuting affects your mental health, your physical health, and even the way you think about other people. And these changes are more profound than you might think.

The average commuter spends about an hour a day heading to and from work, but plenty spend as much as three hours commuting. Those hours we spend in the car can have profound psychological and physical impacts on us. A growing body of research shows that there are far more nuanced problems with driving than the ones you’ve probably heard about.

And as a corollary, more scientists are quantifying how “active” commutes, which involve walking, biking, or off-brand hoverboarding can make life better.

Driving is the most stressful way to commute

Sure: Driving is stressful. Traffic is stressful. Being late is stressful. These aren’t groundbreaking observations, but researchers are finding that specific types of commuting produce very different levels of stress. In August, a team of researchers from McGill University published a paper in Transportation Research that asked a seemingly simple question: Which type of commuter endures the most stress: Walkers, transit riders, or drivers?

Their study included almost 4,000 subjects who commute to work or school at McGill University in Montreal, and were surveyed at the end of a long winter when it was still very cold. The results showed something interesting: Even though they were polling in the deep Montreal winter, walkers had the least stressful commute. The second-ranking type of commute was public transit—and even then, the subjects said that the most enjoyable part of their commute was the walk to and from the train or bus.

So even though walkers had to traverse the cold Montreal winters, they also endured the least stress on their way to work. Not everyone enjoys the luxury of living close enough to work to walk, but even when respondents took transit, they still enjoyed the walk the most. By far the most stressful mode was driving, in part because subjects had to budget in a lot of extra time just in case something went wrong.

It’s also bad for your health

You’re probably wondering whether we can really trust how commuters responded to any of the study surveys above. Self-reporting is a notoriously fragile methodology, right?

Sure, but there are studies that give us more objective evidence, too, as UC Irvine researcher Raymond Novaco summarizes in this useful overview of research about commuting and wellbeing. For example, in 1998, two Florida scientists named Steven M. White and James Rotton decided to test how commuting affected blood pressure and heart rate—and got around the self-selection question by assigning subjects their commuting mode randomly. People who drove had significantly higher blood pressure and heart rate, and “lower frustration tolerance,” than those who took the bus.

Since then, more evidence has accumulated about the physical tolls of driving to work. In 2012, a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine tracked the health of more than 4,200 drivers across Texas cities over several years. The researchers took weekly measurements of drivers’ health–everything from their glucose levels to their cholesterol and metabolic levels, as well as things like BMI and weight.

In doing so, they got a very clear picture of how commuting distance is associated with medical health: The longer the distance a person had to drive, the worse their cardiorespiratory fitness was–and the higher their blood pressure and BMI were, even when adjusted for how much physical activity a driver got.

Other studies peg the increase at an exact number: Every hour you spend in a car makes you 6 per cent more likely to be obese. Every kilometre you walk (about .6 of a mile) reduces it by almost 5 per cent.

It’s bad for your relationships and community, too

That driving is physically and mentally stressful may not come as a surprise. But this may: Driving seems to affect the social and economic health of your whole city by lessening your trust in other people and compelling you not to engage socially in your community.

A recent study of more than 21,000 people in Scania, Sweden, found that people who commute by car not only are less social–attending fewer social events, family gatherings, or public events–but they have lower trust, with more drivers reporting that they couldn’t trust most people. Meanwhile, active commuters—walking or biking—and even transit commuters reported much higher social participation and trust in others.

The results, published this year in Environment and Behavior, suggest that commuting by car actually harms the creation of “social capital,” a term for social relationships that lead to community building and economic development, or “the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human well-being.”

The authors make a compelling argument: Bad urban planning is actually harming the economic and social development of humans. “Car commuting was associated with lower levels of social participation and general trust,” the authors conclude, adding that we need to consider how growing cities balance their growing labour markets with the commute those workers will need to endure.

When we design cities that make long drives to work necessary, we harm the social health of those cities. Active commuting doesn’t just lead to healthier people: It leads to healthier cities.

Riding or walking to work makes you healthier and happier

What’s so intriguing about the Swedish study was that biking and walking helped people develop a greater trust in their peers and engage more in their cities. There’s also research showing that it does a lot for your happiness and health.

One oft-cited University of East Anglia study of roughly 18,000 adults in the UK from last year showed that the shift from driving to walking (or riding) reported feeling better and having better concentration. And even if they had to take a train or bus, they were still happier than drivers, as lead author Adam Martin explained:

One surprising finding was that commuters reported feeling better when travelling by public transport, compared to driving. You might think that things like disruption to services or crowds of commuters might have been a cause of considerable stress. But as buses or trains also give people time to relax, read, socialise, and there is usually an associated walk to the bus stop or railway station, it appears to cheer people up.

As Gizmodo’s own Alissa Walker has explained before, increasing the number of people who walk in a neighbourhood has the power to increase property values and neighbourhood community. “Walking is the simplest, most cost-efficient way to improve a city’s economic and environmental viability,” Walker writes.

Meanwhile, a good overview of this evidence about cycling to work is a sprawling review in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports called Health benefits of cycling: a systematic review, that evaluated 16 different studies dealing with everything from an association between cycling and lower instances of colon cancer to simple cardiovascular fitness benefits. But overall, 14 of the 16 studies showed health benefits to cycling to work, even when the pace is slower and the distance short.

More importantly, 14 of the studies showed that there’s a strong inverse relationship between cycling and mortality–whether from cardiovascular disease or colon cancer. Their conclusion is straight forward: Riding work will improve your fitness, reduce the risk of death by cardiovascular disease or cancer, as well as risk of obesity.

... And the benefits vastly outweigh the risks

There’s one big argument against riding to work that you hear again and again, and one smaller one. The first is the physical danger of commuting by bike, and the second is the hazard of inhaling car exhaust while riding on city streets. Many people may reason that despite the fact that riding or walking might make them emotionally and physically healthier, they don’t want to risk an accident. Fair enough.

But it turns out this exact risk/reward assessment has been subjected to scientific study, too. In fact, the authors of one major study even tallied the relationship between riding to work and life length—down to the month.

A few years ago, a Dutch study from the University of Utrecht calculated the mortality rates if an a group of 500,000 Dutch adults made the switch from driving to riding their bikes. Using census data and data about air pollution, physical exercise, and accidents, they found first that the switch to riding would add between three months to 14 months to your life expectancy. Seem small? Well, it’s huge compared to what air pollution and accidents took away. Breathing in pollution on the street only subtracted between .8 days and a little over a month over the course of a lifetime, while accidents subtracted between five and nine days.

Overall, riding to work was nine times as beneficial than the risks posed by accidents or air pollution.

As great as it is that we can point to scientific evidence of the benefits of active commuting, it’s harder to articulate the less empirical effects of riding or walking to work. An essay by Tim Kreider from a few years ago is one of my personal favourites when trying to explain the joy of riding to work, and how it seems to quell the sea of anxiety some of us feel. Kreider says:

I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive.

After all, our bodies were designed to move–it’s unsurprising that we feel better when they do.

Is it possible to fall or crash on a bike or on a walk to work? Absolutely. But it’s also possible we’ll be slowly struck down by longer-term ills that driving seems to be associated with. Figuring out how to get to work on two wheels or two feet may sound stressful. But once you’re out there, you might find yourself enjoying it.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby