The neglected benefits of the commute

By David Robson 8 August 2018

It can be disheartening to recognise the amount of time we spend in transit. The average Londoner passes more than 40 minutes on each leg of their journey to work, for instance. That means we spend about as much time on the commute as we do socialising or practicing our hobbies. This may be the longest average journey time in Europe, but many other global cities have it even worse.

We spend about as much time on the commute as we do socialising or practicing our hobbies

Who wouldn’t rather spend that time with their friends, at the gym – or simply vegging out in front of the TV? But a series of studies published during the last couple of years suggest that commuting does have its upsides – particularly if you are taking public transport. And recognising those advantages might just make that journey a little less gruelling.

Accelerated learning

Consider the morning commute. There is no doubt that the stresses of a crowded bus or train can leave you feeling exhausted before you have even arrived at work, but some striking research by Jon Jachimowicz at Columbia Business School has shown that you don’t need to feel this drained.

He has found that people who engage in “work-related prospection”– that is, thinking and planning about the day and week ahead and the steps you need to take to achieve your career goals – tend to weather the stresses of the journey better than people whose minds wander aimlessly. This translated to greater job satisfaction throughout the day.

Jachimowicz suspects that these benefits come from the fact that it eases the conflict we feel between our roles at home and our roles at work. After all, your behaviour at home – as a flatmate, spouse or parent – will be very different from the ways you are expected to act at work. And some people don’t switch between the roles very naturally, creating a sense of conflict that can compound work-related stress.

“When we’re stuck in between these two roles – this thing that researchers call ‘role ambiguity’ – we feel conflict, and that leads to a lot of negative outcomes,” Jachimowicz says – such as feelings of exhaustion and burnout.

A few moments thinking about the day in front of you can therefore ease the change of gears, reducing the stress once you arrive in the office, he says. “The time period between leaving home and arriving at work is really a wonderful opportunity that people could use to transition between the two roles.”

The evening commute, meanwhile, may be a good time to consolidate your memory of the things you have learnt throughout the day. Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School asked trainee IT workers to spend 15 minutes of reflection at the end of each day. By the end of their course, they performed 20% better than people who had instead spent that period on additional active practice. Gino’s participants were, admittedly, reflecting on their work from the comfort of their office – but there’s no reason why you can’t use your commute to quietly reflect on the day’s lessons.

Many people prefer a more involved distraction, of course – and it is worth remembering just how productive those snatched moments can be in the long term. As BBC Capital recently revealed, someone who spends around six hours commuting each week could read (or listen to) a 100,000 word book in that time. Or you might decide to learn a language. Neuroscience shows that we often learn best when we study in spaced chunks – and the commute is an ideal time to put that principle into practice.

Even if you simply let your mind wander, you may find that yourself unexpectedly solving a knotty problem – with evidence that periods of mindless distraction can lead to momentary sparks of creativity.

You don’t need to spend too long on any of these activities – in between checking your Instagram and Twitter feeds – but if you do devote a little time to reflection, your commute could help to enhance your sense of achievement and your productivity.

Slimming down

Your daily ordeal may also bring unexpected benefits to your physical health. A study of Taiwanese commuters, for instance, found that people who used public transport were about 15% less likely to be overweight compared to those who travelled to work in the car. Crucially, the relationship holds even when you account for other potential factors like socioeconomic status that might also influence fitness.

OK, a bus or train journey doesn’t carry the same physical demands as a Zumba class. But it typically does require a stroll to and from your station or bus stop, and the Taiwanese study suggested that these short bursts of activity can add up to a meaningful difference in fitness.

To find out more, Richard Patterson at Imperial College London analysed detailed data from the English National Travel Survey, allowing him to determine exactly how much exercise the average commuter gleans from their daily journey. He found that roughly a third of public transport commuters met the government’s recommendations of 30-minutes exercise a day, through their commute alone.


Patterson points out that governments could consider these benefits when they decide their funding for transport networks, since encouraging people to give up their cars and take a train or bus could end up having a real effect on public health. In the UK, for instance, he calculates that a 10% increase in the use of public transport could result in 1.2 million more people reaching the recommended levels of physical activity. “Some decisions, which may not seem to have much to do with health, can have these knock-on effects for people’s wellbeing,” he says.

 A 10% increase in the use of public transport could result in 1.2 million more people reaching the recommended levels of physical activity

Patterson certainly wouldn’t claim that your commute could replace regular visits to the gym but recognising these gains could surely take some of the sting out of a frustrating journey.

After all, psychological research has repeatedly shown that the stress of an event is often highly dependent on the way we frame it. Two situations – which are ostensibly equal on every objective measure – may have subtly different effects depending on our own interpretation, such whether it feels like we have autonomy, for instance, and whether it feels like it is contributing to a greater goal. These changes aren’t just subjective: they are reflected in physiological measures, such as fluctuations in the stress hormone cortisol.

Recognising and reappraising the commute’s benefits, so that they no longer feel like ‘wasted’ hours, could therefore have a real effect on your overall experience so that it no longer casts such a shadow over your day.


David Robson is a science writer based in London, UK. He is d_a_robson on Twitter.

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