The Train Drain

As someone who has recently relocated from The South, I have believed that the large cities in The North are beacons of diversity, culture, and, wait for it, public transportation.  I don’t have to drive myself to work?


Reading!  Writing!! Knitting!!  Being on the Facebook!! Pinning on Pinterest!!

As you can imagine, living in the Chicago area has been a bit of a boon.  I am lucky enough to live in the city (on the Northwest Side!!), and have, since May, been commuting by bike.  Door to door, I can make the trip in 35 minutes on a bike, regardless of when I leave.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can leave my house for the office in Lincoln Park at 8 am and be walking into the lift at 990 W. Fullerton at 8:35 am.  At 5 pm, I speed past the bumper to bumper traffic on Lincoln Ave and arrive home sweaty and flushed, but having just burned 300+ calories.

I have a car and have transported myself the 6.5 miles to work with it.  Mostly on days when I have to carry a bunch of stuff into the office.  Or home from the office.  And it’s always a frustrating experience.  And unless I am going at 6 am or 8 pm, it always takes much longer than 35 min.  If I am being completely honest, I would have to admit that it has become even more frustrating since I started commuting by bike.  “Eeeeh… I could be home by now,” is all I can think as I sit in stop and go traffic on the Edens, on Fullerton, or even on Lincoln Ave.

Sitting in traffic, I look around and see mostly cars with only one driver.  Staring blankly ahead (or at a phone in their hand).  To me, this is absolute madness: to know, every single day of your work life that you go to work that it will include a 30, 45, 60 minute process EACH WAY where in you drive at speeds of 0-10 miles an hour to get to and from work.  Do not like!  Do not want!!

A recent article in the American Journal of Preventative Health underscores some of the negative effects of long commutes to work.  For me, this raises lots of questions about mental health and happiness.  But naturally, given my love of public transit, I must ask, would the negative health consequences exist for people using public transit?  Maybe people are just stressed by having to drive themselves, rather than being able to use that time for reading/knitting/pinning/facebooking.  For a lot of people, commuting by public transit wouldn’t be any better.  Waiting for buses and trains adds time to a commute.  Such that, at the end of the day, some people commute an 60 or 90 minutes one way by train.  A two-year old study published in BMC Public Health found that length of commute to be positively associated with poorer overall health, regardless of the mode of transportation.

Broad, demographic changes are starting to influence the ways that people conceptualize where they live.  The population is re-urbanizing, with many people deciding that commutes requiring 2-3 hours in a car are not how they want to spend such a significant portion of their life.  Babyboomers are getting older and deciding that they don’t have the time/energy/patience to devote to upkeep on a suburban McMansion.  At the other end of the spectrum, fertility rates are falling, and 5, 6, and 7 bedroom houses in the suburbs aren’t required to accommodate large and bustling families.

Essentially, this all gets back to a need to reconsider how we think about work, life, and transportation in this country.  We need better urban planning, more affordable urban housing, and more useful telecommuting policies.  Having so many people in the workforce spend so much time commuting from home to work and back keeps us from being a truly productive and happy society.


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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