How to Take Control of Your Commute

Useless, boring, frustrating, commuting is on just about everyone's list of pet hates. Most of us without a gig in urban planning can't do much about traffic congestion or sardine-like conditions on commuter trains, but is there anything we can do to improve the daily battle to get to work? A new survey offers some hope that we do have some control over the level of commute misery we experience.

Each year IBM's Commuter Pain Survey ranks commuter suffering in economically important cities internationally, taking into account the emotional, economic and time costs of commuting. Here is this year's list from least to most painful:

  • #20 -- Montreal
  • #19 -- London
  • #18 -- Chicago
  • #17 -- Stockholm
  • #16 --Toronto
  • #15 --New York City
  • #14 --Madrid
  • #13 -- Paris
  • #12 -- Los Angeles
  • #11 -- Buenos Aires
  • #10 -- Singapore
  • #9 -- Milan
  • #8 --Moscow
  • #7 -- New Delhi
  • #6 -- Bangalore
  • #5 -- Johannesburg
  • #4 -- Nairobi
  • #3 -- Beijing
  • #2 --Shenzhen
  • #1 -- Mexico City
Moving to Montreal might be one way to improve your commute then, but for those without Canadian citizenship or a desire for international relocation, what other insights does this year's installment of the IBM survey provide? The answer is an intriguing paradox.

The survey of more than 8,000 commuters offers some grounds for optimism, finding "big jumps in the percentage of respondents who said that roadway traffic has improved either 'somewhat' or 'substantially' in the past three years." But it also found that despite falling congestion, commuters also reported increased "levels of personal stress and anger." So commutes are objectively less hellish but people hate them more -- what's going on here?

Commute stress, it turns out, isn't just down to the length of the traffic jam or comfort level of the train, but also to individuals' general state of mind. Naveen Lamba, IBM's global intelligent transportation expert explains:

Commuting doesn't occur in a vacuum. A person's emotional response to the daily commute is colored by many factors -- pertaining both to traffic congestion as well as to other, unrelated, issues. This year's Global Commuter Pain survey indicates that drivers in cities around the world are much more unsettled and anxious compared with 2010.
While that's bad news for mental health as economic uncertainty takes its toll on commuters around the world and drives up ambient stress levels, there is an upside to this explanation. If the impact of our commutes is controlled just by journey times and traffic conditions than there is little individuals can do to improve them. We're not able to widen roads or teach others to be civilized drivers all on our own. But IBM's report suggests that the misery of your commute is at least partially in your mind, and that's something you do have power over.

By re-conceptualizing your commute not as an aggravating time sink but instead as an opportunity for study, relaxation or mental preparation for the day to come, you can actually exert some control over the experience. Carpool with someone you enjoy spending time with. Adjust your driving habits for a calmer mindset. Whatever your approach, the IBM study suggest you shouldn't simply give up and passively accept daily travel misery without trying to improve the mental context in which you commute.

(Still looking for novel ways to improve your trip to work? Take note that being a man might help. Recent research out of the UK finds women suffer psychologically much more than men when it comes to commuting. Of course, there's no way to get yourself a Y chromosome if you don't already have one, but if you're a woman, knowing you're whole gender is suffering with you might comes as some small consolation.)

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user, CC 2.0)