Why It’s So Hard to Change People’s Commuting Behavior (2022)

Car commuters report higher levels of stress and lower job satisfaction compared to train commuters — in large part because car commuting can involve driving in traffic and navigating tense road situations. Some employers are trying to get involved and reduce car commuting. But how can organizations encourage their employees to commute differently? Researchers tried to answer this question by designing a series of experiments to “nudge” employees to change how they commute. Overall, they found these light-touch interventions failed to shift people’s commuting behavior.

American employees spend, on average, 200 hours a year commuting to work, and 3/4 of these commuters drive to work alone. Commuting alone by car is not just bad for the environment (24% of global energy-related CO2 emissions come from transportation), it’s also bad for business. Car commuters report higher levels of stress and lower job satisfaction compared to train commuters — in large part because car commuting can involve driving in traffic and navigating tense road situations.

Some employers are trying to get involved and reduce car commuting. But how can organizations encourage their employees to commute differently?

To try to answer this question, we conducted a study with an airport outside a major European city. This airport employs more than 70,000 people, half of whom drove to work alone during our study in early 2015. The airport wanted to understand whether they could shift employees’ commuting behavior from driving alone to more active modes like carpooling, taking public transit, biking, or walking. This would help the organization meet its sustainability and capacity goal of reducing congestion.

We gathered data from the airport’s employee survey on commuting, and we interviewed dozens of employees about what would make them more likely to switch to more active and sustainable modes of commuting. Based on their responses and the most recent behavioral science evidence at the time, we designed a series of experiments to “nudge” employees to change how they commute.

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We focused on behaviors employees told us that they wanted to engage in. For example, we knew that these employees wanted to carpool: They told us that they would carpool if they could find someone with a similar route and shift pattern.

So, one of our “nudges” was to play matchmaker. We sent letters to 15,000 employees encouraging them to sign up to their workplace’s existing private carpooling system. This system helped match employees and provided benefits that made carpooling seem more appealing, such as priority parking and a free 24/7 emergency ride home service.

Despite employees’ stated interest, however, fewer than 100 employees signed up for the carpooling service after receiving our letters. Only three employees were using it a month later. There was clearly a mismatch between what employees said they wanted and what they were able or willing to do.

We also wanted to evaluate common approaches organizations take to change commuting behavior, such as offering discounted passes for public transportation. We ran two additional experiments with a total of 7,500 employees. In one, we looked at whether providing one week of free bus tickets would increase the purchase of discounted transit passes. In another, we followed up with employees that had not used the free bus tickets and reminded them they were leaving money on the table. Neither of these strategies had an effect on the use of transit passes.

In another experiment with more than 1,000 employees, we evaluated the impact of personalized travel plans —customized pamphlets that told employees all of the different ways that they could commute to work to save both time and money. These pamphlets highlighted potential carpool partners, different bus and train routes and times, and provided information for discounted travel passes. Yet again, we found no effect on reducing single occupancy vehicle (SOV) use.

Overall, we found a whole set of interventions — many of which are used regularly in corporate settings — that failed to shift people’s commuting behavior. Why didn’t these approaches work? After all, employees told us they wanted to find better ways to commute.

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We believe that these nudges weren’t effective for three reasons:

First, employees didn’t have to bear the full financial cost of car commuting, since the organization offered their employees free parking spaces (the true cost of which is thousands of dollars a year), and they were not paying for the environmental costs of driving. The nudges that we tried would likely have been more successful if employees had to bear the full costs of their commuting decisions.

Second, taking transit or carpooling can benefit society, but it is often less convenient for an individual commuter. People can be slow to take up more sustainable commutes because of the time it takes to plan public transit and carpool, at least in the beginning.

Third, these approaches required changing a habitual behavior, which is notoriously difficult to change. Nudging is particularly effective at shaping one-off behaviors, such as getting flu shots, but it hasn’t yet been shown to be as reliably effective at changing decisions that require daily actions, like exercise.

Our infrastructure, financial incentives, and social norms strongly favor driving alone to work. Against this backdrop, our data suggest that light-touch nudges, which might seem easy for companies to implement, are not enough to make a difference. Instead, if companies want to shift habitual commuting behavior, we recommend trying the following options:

Make the full cost of driving salient for employees: Avoid subsidizing parking or other infrastructure that masks the full cost of driving to work alone. This does not just mean taking away free parking; it could also involve giving employees the monetary equivalent of parking as a bonus, and then allowing employees to choose to use the bonus to pay for a parking spot or to keep the cash and choose alternative modes of travel.

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Make driving harder, and make other forms of commuting easier: By making driving and parking less convenient (e.g. cut the size of parking lots in half; provide remote parking lots for those who drive alone, compared with parking next to the front door for those who share rides), you can enhance the convenience, safety, comfort, and cost-savings of other modes like carpooling. More substantial cash and non-cash incentives could also be used to motivate riders to shift their commuting behavior from driving alone to taking public transit.

Change the default work arrangement: You can also change the norm by only letting employees park at work three out of five days per week, and/or allowing them to work from home or work from anywhere, so they commute to the office less often. It’s also worth considering schemes that help employees relocate to places that make a non-driving commute more feasible (sometimes called location-efficient mortgage schemes or relocation assistance).

Think about timing: If organizations continue to deploy “nudge” techniques, they may be more successful if they leverage key moments of change. Because people are more likely to change their commuting behavior when they move or start a new job, or when there is a serious disruption that forces them to temporarily abandon their habits, these are the times when employers could try using behaviorally informed messaging and light-touch incentives. If an organization wanted to rely solely on “nudges,” perhaps it could try reaching out once new employees accept a job at the firm to encourage different commuting habits from the outset.

Of course, employees do not like organizations restricting choices, or taking away benefits like parking. But the long-term health and happiness of employees, and the planet, could fundamentally depend on it.

The authors thank Elisabeth Costa and Jessica Roberts for their contributions in getting this paper published.

FAQs

What is the problem with commuting? ›

Commuters also reported higher psychological stress scores, more health complaints, essentially of psychosomatic nature, and greater absenteeism from work due to sickness. Commuting, in addition to shiftwork, further increases sleep problems, psychosomatic complaints and difficulties with family and social life.

How do you solve a commuting problem? ›

Flexible working

Flexible working is an obvious solution to the commuting burden. Allowing employees to stagger their working hours helps them avoid commuter traffic, which reduces the stress of commuting and the time it takes. Home working is another option, which eliminates the commute altogether.

What can be done to improve commuting? ›

Trim the Fat
  1. What's the Best Commute for You? If you are commuting to a city, you are likely to have various options for getting there, so try them all before settling into a routine. ...
  2. Don't Be Afraid to Walk or Bike. ...
  3. Drive Better. ...
  4. Use Your Tools. ...
  5. Transit Benefits. ...
  6. Plan for the Unexpected.

How does commuting affect well being? ›

Studies show that longer commutes lead to decreased job satisfaction and increased risk of mental health issues, while shorter commutes have the opposite effect. Yet, despite a year of working from home, our job satisfaction and general mental health have continued to deteriorate.

Why is commuting so stressful? ›

"According to a recent study, the commute can induce stress due to lack of control associated with congestion, crowding and unpredictability, where mood was found to be lower than during other daily activities.

Why is commuting stressful? ›

Commuting also has significant psychological and social costs. It can be a major cause of stress, due to its unpredictability and a sense of loss of control. Commuters can experience boredom, social isolation, anger, and frustration from problems like traffic or delays.

How do people commute to work? ›

More people take auto rickshaws or taxis to work rather than private cars. For commutes up to 10 km, walking is the most common means of transport, but as commutes grow in distance, people move from travelling on foot to taking buses and two-wheelers.

What is the meaning of mode of commuting? ›

Definition. Main mode of commuting refers to the main mode of transportation a person uses to travel to their place of work.

What are some solutions to traffic? ›

5 Ways to End Heavy Traffic
  • Multimodal streets. Streets don't have to be for cars only. ...
  • Congestion pricing and limited traffic zones. We've written articles about this before. ...
  • Eliminate street parking. ...
  • Add transit options. ...
  • Reclaim public places.
4 Feb 2020

How commuting affects your mental health? ›

You get stressed out. Sitting in traffic every day will get to even the most seasoned driver, especially if you're on a time clock. Car commuters experience higher stress levels and episodic moodiness more often than those using public transportation, in part due to the unpredictability of traffic.

How do you unwind while commuting? ›

Develop healthy habits
  1. Bike to work at least twice a week. ...
  2. Drink a citrus smoothie along the way. ...
  3. Make yourself laugh. ...
  4. Carpool to work with a friend. ...
  5. Bring your dog along for the ride. ...
  6. Switch things up by taking a different route. ...
  7. Do something nice for another commuter. ...
  8. Use a guided meditation app.
16 Aug 2022

What are the advantages and disadvantages of commuting long distance to work? ›

The Pros and Cons of a Long Work Commute
  • You have more time to think and relax. ...
  • You do not have to move closer to your work. ...
  • You have more choices for where you want to live. ...
  • It may make it easier to leave your current employer. ...
  • You have to leave earlier and get home later. ...
  • You risk being later more than you normally would.
24 Oct 2020

How long is too long to commute? ›

The U.S. Census Bureau defines extreme commuters as workers who travel 90 minutes or more each way to work. And the number of extreme commuters has gone up during the 21st century: roughly 4 million workers fit this classification in 2016, compared to only 3.1 million in 2005.

Why do people commute? ›

Asked why, they ticked off their reasons—the feeling of control in one's own car; the time to plan, to decompress, to make calls, to listen to audiobooks. Clearly, the researchers wrote, the commute had some “positive utility.”

Does a commute make you tired? ›

Your Sleep Suffers

The Regus Work-Life Balance Index for 2012 found that people who commute for longer than 45 minutes each way reported lower sleep quality and more exhaustion than people with shorter commutes.

Is a longer commute worth a nicer house? ›

A cheaper home

The reason so many people have long commutes is that they can open up cheaper housing options. If you're willing to commute 30 minutes to an hour, you may find a neighborhood where homes cost half as much as those in the city.

Do long commutes cause depression? ›

The study also showed that those with a long commute were 33 percent more likely to deal with depression. All that stress also contributed to the physical health issues. While dealing with the anxiety and depression, commuters also struggled with obesity and less sleep.

How long does the average person commute to work? ›

Highlights from the report include: In 2019, the average one-way commute in the United States increased to a new high of 27.6 minutes. In 2006, the average travel time for the nation was 25.0 minutes. The increase of about 2.6 minutes between 2006 and 2019 represents an increase of about 10% over 14 years.

Does active commuting improve psychological wellbeing? ›

Compared to driving, wellbeing was higher when using active travel or public transport. Use of active travel reduced the likelihood of two specific GHQ12 psychological symptoms. Switching from car driving to active travel improved wellbeing. Wellbeing increased with travel time for walkers, but decreased for drivers.

How will commuting change in the future? ›

The commute itself, when taken, will become more flexible and personalized, faster, more environmentally-friendly, and less dependent on single-occupant cars. In larger cities, interest in walkability, environmental sustainability, and cost-effectiveness will contribute to decreased interest in car ownership.

What is an example of commuting? ›

The definition of commute means to travel between home and work, or to change one thing for another. An example of to commute is someone taking the bus from their house to their office. An example of to commute is to reduce a one year jail sentence to time served.

When did people start commuting? ›

The word commuter derives from early days of rail travel in US cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, where, in the 1840s, the railways engendered suburbs from which travellers paying a reduced or 'commuted' fare into the city.

Which was the most common way of commuting to school? ›

In the current study, the most common mode of commuting used by students in all age groups was by car (43.4% and 31.6% to and from school, respectively), whereas active modes such as walking and cycling were less used (13.1%, 18.2% to and from, respectively, for walking and 0.3% and 1.4% to and from, respectively, for ...

What is the purpose of mode of transport? ›

Mode of transport is used to distinguish between different methods of moving people or goods from one place to another.

How can we reduce traffic problems essay? ›

Suggestions:
  1. People should use public transport as much as possible.
  2. The government must increase the facilities of public transport as per the need of the population.
  3. Everyone should avoid the unnecessary collection of vehicles.
  4. People should use carpool and vehicle sharing to decrease the vehicles on the road.

How do traffic problems affect you? ›

Answer: Traffic problems affect me rather very negatively as I have to get ready to go to work or anywhere else well in advance, and thus wasting a lot of extra time on the road. Then of course, because of spending too much time on the road makes me feel way more tired than what I am supposed to be.

How would you reduce traffic problems in your area? ›

Overbridges, bypass roads and flyovers are constructed to reduce the traffic problems in large cities. Other measures include using cycles whenever possible, avoiding talking over the phone while driving, give way to ambulances, and avoid overtaking.

Is commuting to work bad? ›

There's research to back up the feeling that commuting might not be great for your health. Study after study shows commuting is linked to stress and unpredictability that can have a negative effect on your sleep, blood pressure, relationships, and much more.

Can everyday traffic affect our mental health? ›

Traffic congestion and noise can cause stress, fatigue, irritability, and rage in commuters.

Why is it good to commute to work? ›

Professor Joseph Devlin, one of the UCL academics who worked on the research, said the commute could have a positive impact on cognitive performance, wellbeing and productivity. “The commute delineates boundaries between home and work life and can be used to switch one off and transition to the other,” he said.

Is commuting to work stressful? ›

Research from around the world is leading psychologists to conclude that the heightened stress that commuting puts on individuals and their families can easily overshadow the work and home gains they might realize. Commuting exacts considerable stress on the human mind and body and on family relationships.

How do you deal with a long commute at work? ›

12 Long Commute to Work Tips: How to be Productive
  1. Turn on the Tunes. The psychological benefits of a good playlist are vast. ...
  2. Make a Mental Checklist. ...
  3. Stay Present. ...
  4. Listen to Audio Books. ...
  5. Put on a Podcast. ...
  6. Connect with a Phone Call. ...
  7. Prepare for Your Day. ...
  8. Meditate.

How do you deal with a long drive at work? ›

If you face a long commute every day, here are seven tips to help turn your daily pain into something closer to contentment.
  1. Leave 15 minutes earlier. ...
  2. Don't turn your long commute into a drag race. ...
  3. Be strategic. ...
  4. Tailor your environment. ...
  5. Pack snacks. ...
  6. Leave your car at home (if you can) ...
  7. Minimize screen-staring.
5 Nov 2019

What are disadvantages of a commuter? ›

4 cons of commuting to work
  • Commuting can affect your free time. Commuting can occupy a significant portion of an employee's day, so it may affect the amount of free time they have on weekdays. ...
  • It may be necessary to pay for your transportation. ...
  • Commuting may affect when you wake up. ...
  • You may experience traffic.
26 Oct 2021

What are the advantages of not driving to work for? ›

It's better for the environment.

Public transportation options produce up to 76% lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared to single-passenger cars. Plus, with fewer vehicles driving, roads will not wear down as quickly, experience as much damage or require as much maintenance.

What is the longest commute to work? ›

Midas sponsored an "America's Longest Commute" award in 2006. The winner, from Mariposa, California, drove a 372-mile roundtrip (about 7 hours) to and from work in San Jose each day.

What is considered a reasonable commute? ›

Technically, a reasonable commuting distance is one that is less than 50 straight-line miles from the employee's residence. If it does not increase their commute by more than five straight-line miles, that would be considered a reasonable distance as well. Driving for near about 30 minutes is also a short distance.

How far should you live from work? ›

Thirty minutes at most, according to the wisdom of the crowds. That comes from reams of data and piles of research that suggests commute times tend to cluster around this point.

How many people commute everyday? ›

American commuters still largely depend on cars

Over 76 percent of Americans drive alone to work every day, while another 9 percent carpool with someone else. Considering that ACS counted 150 million workers in 2016, that's at least 115 million cars and trucks hitting American streets every day.

Does commuting affect grades? ›

Our results consistently show that students with long commute times have less good average grades. Our results indicate a strong and statistically significant decrease in average grades with commute time, however, a decrease in study grades which is much smaller (or even close to negligible) cannot be ruled out either.

What is a reasonable commute? ›

Technically, a reasonable commuting distance is one that is less than 50 straight-line miles from the employee's residence. If it does not increase their commute by more than five straight-line miles, that would be considered a reasonable distance as well. Driving for near about 30 minutes is also a short distance.

What is a commute to work? ›

A commute is a journey you take from home to work and back again. You might enjoy your subway commute because it gives you lots of time to read. Your commute is your trip to work, and the verb commute describes making that trip — like your preference to commute by public bus.

Is it hard to make friends as a commuter? ›

The bottom line. All in all, making friends at a commuter school may be harder, but not impossible. You need to make the effort: go out, find other students, and make friends. A great way to make friends, whether you are in a commuter school or not, is to start small and build up.

Can commuting cause depression? ›

We found that, on average, every 10 more minutes of commuting time is associated with 0.5% (p = 0.011) higher probability of screening positively for depression. Furthermore, when decomposing commuting time into free-flow time and delay time, we found that delay and not free-flow time, were associated with depression.

What do commuter students need? ›

11 Essential Things Every Commuting Student Should Have In Their...
  • 1) A Variety of Chargers. There will be many times where your phone or computer will die and you'll be in desperate need of a charger. ...
  • 2) An Emergency Car Kit. ...
  • 3) A Blanket & Pillow. ...
  • 4) An Extra Set of Clothes. ...
  • 5) Snacks. ...
  • 6) Spare Cash. ...
  • 7) Rain Gear. ...
  • 8) A Map.
25 Aug 2018

How long a commute is too long? ›

The U.S. Census Bureau defines extreme commuters as workers who travel 90 minutes or more each way to work. And the number of extreme commuters has gone up during the 21st century: roughly 4 million workers fit this classification in 2016, compared to only 3.1 million in 2005.

How do you deal with long commute? ›

How to handle a long commute
  1. Leave for work early.
  2. Create a relaxing environment.
  3. Be strategic.
  4. Try public transportation or carpooling.
  5. Pack food and beverages.
  6. Limit technology.
  7. Determine your job satisfaction.

What's the longest you should commute to work? ›

It turns out the scientifically determined ideal commute time averages out to be 16 minutes — not long enough to feel like you're wasting time, but not too short so you can catch up on the news or the latest podcast.

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