Stuck, stressed and sick of traf­fic: Com­mutes are a pub­lic health is­sue

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Business - BY AUSTIN FRAKT New York Times


Some­times the seem­ingly small things in life can be ma­jor stres­sors.

No­body likes sit­ting in traf­fic, for ex­am­ple. Ac­cord­ing to one study, com­mut­ing is one of the least pleas­ant things we do. But it is not just an an­noy­ing time waster – there is a case that it is a pub­lic health is­sue.

Ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis by the Texas A&M Trans­porta­tion In­sti­tute, the av­er­age Amer­i­can com­muter spends 42 hours per year stuck in rush-hour traf­fic. In the Los An­ge­les area, the fig­ure is nearly twice that, equiv­a­lent to more than three days. A 2015 Los An­ge­les Times poll found that among res­i­dents of that city, traf­fic con­cerns ex­ceed those per­tain­ing to per- sonal safety, fi­nances or hous­ing costs.

The to­tal cost of traf­fic as­so­ci­ated with lost time and wasted fuel ex­ceeds $100 bil­lion per year. As time slips away, idling ve­hi­cles add pol­lu­tion, which has en­vi­ron­men­tal and health con­se­quences, in­clud­ing con­tri­bu­tions to cli­mate change. Longterm ex­po­sure to ve­hi­cle ex­haust is as­so­ci­ated with res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems, espe­cially in chil­dren.

An­other toll is to psy­cho­log­i­cal well-be­ing, stem­ming from the sense of help­less­ness we ex­pe­ri­ence in traf­fic, and its un­pre­dictabil­ity. This, too, can be quan­ti­fied. One study found that to save a minute of time spent in traf­fic, peo­ple would trade away five min­utes of any other leisure ac­tiv­ity. An­other study found that we deal bet­ter with the com­mut­ing de­lays that we can an­tic­i­pate.

Stressed-out peo­ple can take out their frus­tra­tion on oth­ers. We have prob­a­bly all ex­pe­ri­enced or seen road rage, but ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior can carry over be­yond a com­mute.

A re­cent anal­y­sis of Los An­ge­les traf­fic, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Pub­lic Eco­nomics, doc­u­mented a link be­tween con­ges­tion and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. From 2011 to 2015, the study found, ex­treme evening traf­fic on two ma­jor high­ways – In­ter- state 5 and In­ter­state 10 – in­creased the in­ci­dence of night­time do­mes­tic vi­o­lence by about 9 per­cent.

What the re­searchers, Louis-Philippe Be­land, an econ­o­mist at Louisiana State Univer­sity, and Daniel Brent, an econ­o­mist at Penn State, mean by “ex­treme traf­fic” in their study is best ex­plained with an ex­am­ple: The av­er­age evening com­mute along I-10 for res­i­dents of Santa Mon­ica in their study was 45 min­utes. Ex­treme traf­fic would in­crease this to 87 min- utes.

“Life stres­sors act as emo­tional cues,” Be­land said. “What our work shows is that in ex­treme cases some peo­ple’s re­sponses to those cues can be quite large, lead­ing to vi­o­lence.”

Teach­ing chil­dren how to man­age stress and trau­matic events from a young age can be im­por­tant.

“Through­out life, mind­ful­ness, healthy eat­ing, sleep­ing and ex­er­cise, and hob­bies that blow of steam all help,” said Re­becca Mooney, di­rec­tor of Mel­rose Al­liance Against Vi­o­lence, which raises aware­ness about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and re­lated is­sues in and around Mel­rose, Mas­sachusetts.

Of­fi­cials are not pow­er­less be­fore the prob­lems that stress­ful com­mutes can cause. Los An­ge­les has put in a sys­tem that charges solo driv­ers more to use cer­tain lanes of the I-10 and I-110 high­ways dur­ing pe­ri­ods of heavy traf­fic. This en­cour­ages driv­ers to move their com­mutes to less con­gested times or routes. A study of con­ges­tion pric­ing on Seattle’s State Route 520 Bridge found that driv­ers us­ing the route and its al­ter­na­tives were less stressed and more sat­is­fied with their com­mutes af­ter the pric­ing change.

In ad­di­tion, many states have been re­plac­ing toll­booths with elec­tronic and cash­less tolling sys­tems such as E-ZPass. More em­ploy­ers are al­low­ing peo­ple to work re­motely. Trou­bled tran­sit sys­tems in some cities may be partly be­hind an in­crease in car own­er­ship in those ar­eas, but cer­tain West Coast cities are mak­ing sweep­ing ex­pan­sions of their pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems and many cities are adding bike lanes.

Those who can walk or bike to work tend to have a dou­ble ad­van­tage. Not only do they avoid the harm­ful con­se­quences of traf­fic, but they can also im­prove their health through ex­er­cise. Younger peo­ple are more likely to pre­fer that style of com­mut­ing and are driv­ing less than pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

There may be more good news in com­ing decades for those who loathe grid­lock. Al­though self-driv­ing cars will not cure traf­fic woes on their own – the way that eco­nomics-based ap­proaches like con­ges­tion pric­ing can – they may be able to re­duce stress.

If you are crawl­ing along in traf­fic and are late to an ap­point­ment, but are al­lowed to take a nap, play video games, watch your fa­vorite TV show or sip on a cock­tail, will that re­duce your stress? We don’t know for sure, but we look for­ward to the stud­ies on that.


Com­mut­ing is one of the least pleas­ant things we do. But it is not just an an­noy­ing time waster – there is a case that it is a pub­lic health is­sue.

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