CM: Transportation and Our Mental Health
By Luis Alejandro Murcia Jiménez
Mental health awareness has grown substantially throughout the last few decades, and it has become a major topic of investigation in different fields. One such field is transportation. A reality most people face is the need to travel from their homes to different places such as work, schools, and leisure activities. The ‘how’ we get there is influential on our state of mind both during and after our commute.
The Private Vehicle
It is no secret that North America is heavily dependent on personal vehicles to move around. There is a clear lack of efficient, affordable, and inclusive ways to move about in most cities in North America without a car. Reasons for this vary from place to place but generally, they include endless urban sprawl, poor city planning catered for vehicular mobility only, and strict zoning laws that prevent multipurpose neighbourhoods. The reality is that without a vehicle, it is hard to participate in society. Everything is too far apart and/or too dangerous to travel to without being inside a vehicle.
Car dependency has shaped millions of Canadians’ lifestyles since the car became a common fixture of households. In 2016, 12.6 million Canadians commuted to work by car with a one-way average trip of 24 minutes. Of that total, close to a million commutes to work took 60 minutes or more, a number that increased by 5% since 2011 (Government of Canada, 2019). Such long commutes, aside from being undesirable for financial reasons, affect our mental well-being in negative ways.
Long commutes, both for vehicles and public transit, may cause feelings of isolation for people, an issue that may develop over time into depression (Smith, 2017). This is not surprising when we consider that most people commute alone. There have been preliminary findings linking longer daily commutes with higher chances of screening positive for depression (Wang et al., 2019). Prolonged commutes lead to many repetitive trips with little to no change in the visual environment, creating mental fatigue (Ma et al., 2018). Commutes become so routine in our brains that people will drive on autopilot without conscious effort, potentially endangering themselves and others on the road (SafetyDriven, 2021).
In addition to depression and mental fatigue, long commutes, both in a personal vehicle and on public transit, can be a huge contributor to long-term stress. Chronic stress can affect someone’s behaviour, and overall well-being. A British study found that the longer a commute is, the higher levels of anxiety are to be expected (Sedghi & Arnett, 2014). Similar findings were found here in Canada where 36% of people that had commutes of 45 minutes or longer reported feeling anxious or extremely stressed. A significant difference from those with short commutes of 15 minutes and under where only 23% reported the same levels of stress (Turcotte, 2015). Some people are more affected by stress; and drivers under the right conditions, may be triggered by the driving behaviour of others on the road and experience road rage (Bierma, 2021). Road rage is an issue that, according to different surveys, affects one in three Canadians at least once a month and 82% of people have admitted to an act of road rage in the past year (ThinkInsure, 2021).
With long commutes comes extensive planning on when to leave to avoid traffic. To arrive on time to work or school people tend to leave earlier than they would like, and to do so need to either go to bed earlier or sacrifice sleep. Time is lost commuting that could instead be spent with family or dedicated to personal health and well-being. Reducing time spent with families has a negative impact on home relationships as a study found that if a spouse’s commute is longer than 45 minutes, the rate of divorce increases by 40% (Sandow, 2013). Long commutes take time from peoples’ lives that could be used doing something that could be improving well-being, directly affecting work-life balance.
Public transit tends to be a mode of transportation that is stigmatized, and as a GM advertisement put it, only “creeps and weirdos” use (Chavan, 2003). It is considered by those with personal vehicles to be the very last resort to move around a city. Common perceptions are that buses and trains (or LRTs) are dirty, unsafe, and impractical. In Edmonton, some trips can take over twice the amount of time by public transit than by car (Sterling Homes Edmonton, 2021). This is assuming that the service is on time and/or a connection is not missed, causing an even longer wait to catch the next bus or train. As a result, public transit is left to those who cannot afford a vehicle to move efficiently. Removing the stigma from transit may not be easy, but it is possible. There are many transport systems in Europe and Asia that are highly valued and frequently used. Using ideas like improving sustainability or stopping climate change to get people to use public transit does not work (Bromley, 2010). The key to getting people on public transit is by making it “clean, safe, reliably punctual and cheaper than driving” (Bromley, 2010).
Research suggests that lengthy commuting by public transit shares similar drawbacks with regards to mental well-being to those with lengthy commutes by car (Sedghi & Arnett, 2014). In some cases, those taking public transit occasionally report poorer mental well-being Költő et al, 2021). However, when researchers accounted for other variables that may contribute to differences in mental well-being (i.e.: gender, wealth, area of residence, etc.), they found that differences in mental well-being disappeared. This suggests that the mode of transportation itself may not be the root cause, but rather the circumstances that many people who take public transit tend to experience. If we look at who uses public transit most often, we can see that it is largely minority groups and the lowest income earners (Hosford & Winters, 2022).
If the environment we navigate daily feels unsafe, regardless of whether it is objectively safe or not, it can have very negative consequences on our well-being including chronic anxiety and stress. (Brosschot et al, 2016). This is known as ‘perceived safety’. A local example is the current perception of the LRT system in Edmonton as being fundamentally unsafe, especially after a few high-profile violent incidents in early and mid-2022 (Edmonton Journal Editorial Board, 2022). To change the negative perspective on perceived safety research has found that a good physical design of public transit is needed (Deniz, 2018).
Besides private vehicles or public transit, there is the option to walk or cycle around the city, referred to as active transportation. It’s clear that walking and cycling won’t take you as fast nor as far as a vehicle in current car centric cities. However, it doesn’t need to be as fast or for long distances for it to be a practical mode of transportation. Cities, including Edmonton, are going through a transition to improve connectivity and reduce travel times with plans such as the “15-Minute City” (Sohi, 2021). Plans like this can help make commutes to different places more feasible by bike or by foot.
The length of a commute by active transport, just like by private vehicle or public transit, may negatively affect our mental well-being. However, a lot of the negative impacts reported by active transport users can be sourced back to motorised vehicles, rather than active transport itself. Most of the bicycle infrastructure in North America is not considered as “friendly” to cyclists as those of European countries (Copenhagenize index, 2019). For example, many of Edmonton’s current bike lanes share space directly next to vehicles with no protection for cyclists at all – something that has been proven to lower the perceived safety of riders and potential riders (McNeil, 2015). However, with Edmonton’s newly proposed “bike network” this lack of protection will change, and the increase in quality of the infrastructure will attract more users (Boothby, 2022).
Noise produced by motor vehicles also affects those who use active transportation. Research suggests that car traffic noise has a meaningful negative impact on our mental and physical well-being (Finne & Holm Petersen, 2014). Noise mainly affects those using active transport methods because they do not have any sound buffer, unlike the drivers within motor vehicles. As most sidewalks and bike lanes are directly next to, or quite close to traffic it is hard to avoid the noise pollution. This matter has been investigated by some European countries, where they have started to restrict personal vehicle access to the city core to reduce the noise in the busiest parts of a city (Peters, 2019).
Even with the drawbacks produced by cars towards active transportation, it is a mode of commuting that provides great benefits. Some studies have found that those who cycle to work have significantly lower levels of stress while at work (Hurford, 2021; Brutus, 2017). Other studies suggest that short, active commutes result in happier commuters; and happy commuters are more relaxed, calm, and productive (Ma & Ye, 2019). These benefits could explain why when someone changes their commute from car to active transport their psychological well-being increases (Martin et al, 2014). It not just a benefit for adults commuting to work, but also benefits the mental well-being for children (Kleszczewska et al, 2020).
Better Urban Planning for Active Transportation Necessary
With good urban planning and city design commuting can be a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, cities will continue to build car dependent suburbs and commuting by car will remain prevalent for the foreseeable future. If cities want to address the negative impacts commuting can have on mental health, they will need to shift their focus away from car-centric development by increasing city density and creating multi use neighborhoods thereby, reducing the length and number of trips needed. As well, improving the efficiency and perceived safety for both public and active transport through more thoughtful design, incentivising more people to take advantage of the benefits it can provide.
Note: This is an excerpt from our December 2022 Community Matters, you can read the full publication here
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Luis Murcia’s goal and passion is the pursuit of knowledge for the betterment of society. In 2013, he came to the University of Alberta from El Salvador and graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy. He is striving to develop into a person that can help others become their best self.
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