Nick Paumgarten has a thoughtful essay in the April 16 edition of the New Yorker, entitled “There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter.” We’ve excerpted some of the more situationist components of his essay below.
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Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.
I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller Bowling Alone, about the disintegration of American civic life.) 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.
Drivers often say they prize the time alone—to gather their wits, listen to music, or talk on the phone. They also like the freedom, the ability, illusory though it may be, to come and go as they please; schedules can seem an imposition, as can a crowded train’s cattle-car ambience. But the driver’s seat is a lonely place. People tend to behave in their cars as though they are alone in a room. Road rage is one symptom of this; on the street or on the train, people don’t generally walk around calling each other assholes. Howard Stern is another; you can listen to lewd evocations without feeling as though you were pushing the bounds of the social contract. You could drive to work without your pants on, and no one would know.
The loneliness quotient might also account for some of the commute tolerance in New York. On the train or the bus, one can experience an illusion of fellowship, even if you disdain your fellow-passengers or are revolted by them. Perhaps there’s succor in inadvertent eye contact, the presence of a pretty woman, shared disgruntlement (over a delay or a spilled Pepsi), or the shuffle through the doors, which requires, on a subconscious level, an array of social compromises and collaborations. Train riding has other benefits. Passengers can sleep or read, send e-mails or play cards. Delays are out of their control.
Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman . . . .) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.
“People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.
“They have to trade off social goods for material goods,” Stutzer said. “This is very difficult for people. They make systematic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we’ll like something but not at knowing for how long.” People adapt to a higher living standard but not to social isolation. Frey and Stutzer infer that some people, even when the costs become clear, just lack the will power to change. “People have limited self-control and insufficient energy, inducing some people to not even try to improve their lot,” they write. In this regard, they say, commuting resembles smoking and failing to save money.
This analysis presupposes that commuting represents what economists call a rational choice, as opposed to a constrained choice. Postwar zoning laws aggressively separated living space from commercial space, requiring more roads and parking lots—known to planners as Euclidean zoning (after a Supreme Court decision involving Euclid, Ohio), and to civilians as sprawl. Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five- minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. “You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,” Putnam said. “Where is your community?” The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to the store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul.
Putnam’s favorite city is Bologna, in Italy, which has a population of three hundred and fifty thousand; it’s just small enough to retain village-like characteristics. “It would be interesting to swap the citizens of Bologna with the population of New Jersey,” Putnam said. “Do the Bolognese become disconnected and grouchy? Is there a sudden explosion of malls in Bologna? How much of the way we live is forced on us? How much is our choice?”
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To read all of Paumgarten’s interesting essay, click here.