Commute time and happiness

Ezra Klein has a post on how people undervalue a short commute when deciding where to live. According to an article he links to,

A commuter who travels one hour, one way, would have to make 40% more than his current salary to be as fully satisfied with his life as a noncommuter, say economists Bruno S. Frey and Alois Stutzer of the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics.

That number doesn’t surprise me at all, but my personal optimization function places a high value on the amount of time I have outside work to pursue my other interests. Two hours a day sitting in my car would be a huge chunk taken out of that, and it would require a substantial compensation in quality of life for that tradeoff to be worthwhile. I’m always baffled by people who are willing to undertake even longer commutes when they don’t have to.
This will of course be an extremely relevant issue for me soon, once it’s time to relocate. Depending on where I end up working, it could be in competition with some of my other criteria, such as living in a walkable neighborhood. If I take a job in, say, Manhattan, short commute and neighborhood walkability pretty much coincide, but if it’s in an exurban office park somewhere I have to trade off one for the other. This in turn feeds back somewhat into my job decisions. In some ways I have it easy, though: being single, I only have one commute to worry about. The minimization problem for two-income households is certainly more complicated…

6 thoughts on “Commute time and happiness

  1. Justin

    This may be very CA-centric, but I’ve always understood the commute trade-off to be a matter of housing costs. To take myself and my former officemate as examples, I walk and rent, he drives 30-40 miles/day (Rowland Heights to Pasadena) because that’s the closest place he could afford to buy a house. So the linked article should really be talking about housing costs, equity, etc., rather than salary as the compensation for commute time.
    When do you expect to decide on job offers, etc.?
    And yes, the two-body problem is indeed difficult (Lesleigh is starting to apply for jobs…). 😛

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    I won’t dispute that housing costs are one of the motivating factors for large commutes, but I think there are some good reasons for the economic calculation to be done in terms of salary. I see it as just the usual economics approach of quantifying utility in terms of money, with the salary giving the time-to-money conversion factor for a given individual. This has the advantage of being neutral with respect to people’s housing preferences, which can vary dramatically. I wouldn’t want to live in an exurban development even with zero commute time, but obviously lots of people do. Also, there’s an additional effect that Klein mentions where people overvalue home ownership (and home size) on top of undervaluing commute time. Rather than entangle these two effects, it seems better to do the calculation in terms of opportunity costs.
    In order to decide on job offers I will first have to receive some. :( I’ve been waiting to hear from a couple good prospects for a while, but at least one of those should resolve soon so maybe I’ll have something.

  3. Mason

    I very much value being able to walk both to work and to things like movies, theatre, etc.
    My commute time right now is about 45 seconds outside and 1-2 minutes inside. (I live across the street from my office, so I actually do a lot of my work from home too these days. It depends on mood and convenience at a given moment.) Though this does have the unfortunate side effect of some power outages taking out both places at once (as happened a couple of weeks ago).

  4. Lanth

    Yeah, the kids-in-school thing can also complicate the commute issue. At one point, I went to a private school that was a half-hour drive away, and my father worked at a company that was an hour drive away… in the opposite direction. So no matter where we lived between those two locations, there would be a significant drive. And to make things worse, at the time we only had one car–we’d drive the hour to drop my father off, then the hour and a half to drop me off. Fortunately, I could read in the car (without getting carsick) as a kid.

  5. Sharon

    I agree, commute time is vital. So many of my coworkers puzzle me by moving far away….the schools aren’t always as good, the commute sucks, but the bang for the buck that you get on a house is huge. Personally I’d much rather trade a big house with fancy furniture for a short commute. I’m not a very materialistic person, but I place very high value on my time.
    Also, I hear this a lot – “My commute gives me sanity at the end of a long day.” I don’t get it. I’d go insane.

Comments are closed.