Commuting and social life

I was pleased when Chad directed me to the New Yorker piece on commuting last year which garnered much attention. I myself have spent quite a bit of time on the highways of 101, 280 and 237, not to mention countless trips down the peninsula on the Caltrain. What Chad directed me to, though, was a quote I completely glossed over the first time I read this article, one by Robert Putnam:

“I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is… 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.”

According to this calculation, the following chart represents your life as a commuter. On the x-axis is the number of minutes you spend commuting, and on the y-axis the percentage of your potential social life that you retain with the given commute time.

Commuting impact on social life

The impact of this chart is striking, almost to the point of absurdity. With a literal interpretation, someone with a one-hour commute each-way will only retain 30% of their relationships. What’s more, the quote is really derivative of a result he shows in his most popular book, Bowling Alone, where he actually paints the picture much more bleakly, tying commuting to the downfall of civic engagement (surprise!):

We are commuting farther. From 1960 to 1990 the number of workers who commute across county lines more than tripled. Between 1983 and 1995 the average commuting trip grew 37 percent longer in miles. Ironically, travel time increased by only 14 percent, because the speed of the average commute, by all modes of transportation combined, increased by nearly one quarter. Three factors have made for faster travel, at least in recent past–the switch from carpools and mass transit to single-occupancy vehicles, which are quicker for the individual worker though socially inefficient; the increase in suburb-to-suburb commuting; and greater flexibility in work hours. On the other hand, traffic congestion has metastasized everywhere. In a study of sixty-eight urban areas from Los Angeles to Corpus Christi o Cleveland to Providence, annual congestion-related delay per driver rose steadily from sixteen hours in 1982 to forty-five hours in 1997.

In short, we are spending more and more time alone in the car. And on the whole, many of us see this as time for quiet relaxation, especially those of us who came of age in the midst of the driving boom. According to one survey in 1997, 45 percent of all drivers–61 percent of those aged eighteen to twenty-four, though only 36 percent of those aged forty-five and over–agreed that “driving is my time to think and enjoy being alone.”

The car and the commute, however, are demonstrably bad for community life. In round numbers the evidence suggests that each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent–fewer public meetings attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services, less volunteering, and so on. In fact, although commuting time is not quite as powerful as an influence on civic involvement as education, it i more important than any other demographic factor. And time diary studies suggest that there is a similarly strong negative effect of commuting time on informal social interaction

I would not be the first to question the methodology and results of Bowling Alone, but Putnam’s data is aging quickly, and ignores everything Internet. Perhaps EVDO cards and Blackberrys are helping us stay in touch, but any commuter, technology or not, will identify with the feeling of being out of touch. Putnam’s data are extreme, but at a gut level the intuition seems right: commuting hurts your social life. The more you commute, the less time you have for friends.