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How commuting ruins your social life

July 24, 2006 12:00 am


LOS ANGELES--Everybody knows the high cost of commuting: the cost in gas, the cost in pollution, the cost in frayed nerves.

But there is another cost, researchers say, a hidden price to the hours spent behind the wheel of a car or taking public transportation.

It's the cost to your social life, say researchers.

For every 10 minutes of commuting time, a person's social connections are cut by 10 percent, Harvard University Prof. Robert D. Putnam says in his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."

asap spoke with Harvard University's Thomas Sander, who worked with Putnam on the research for the book, to find out what that means in an era where "extreme commuting" -- traveling 90 minutes or more each way to and from work -- is the fastest growing commuting segment in the country.

What are the simplest forms of social structure affected by commuting?

Sander: The measures are really widespread. It's everything from friendships to attending public meetings. It affects things that happen in the evening or on the weekend. Things like going to church is lower where there are more bedroom communities. It's probably not simply a time displacement argument. It's not just that people are spending more time commuting on Monday through Friday because that doesn't explain why they don't go to church on Saturday or Sunday.

This is about more than just lost time with friendships and relationships?

Sander: The fastest growing segment of the commuting population is what the census calls the extreme commutes -- people who travel 90 minutes or more to get to work. It's not the dominant commute, but it is the fastest growing segment.

Why is this important for a person?

Sander: When some people hear these statistics, they kind of think this is only important in some sort of warm and fuzzy sense... We care about this for two reasons. These ties to neighbors, to friends and community involvement, what we call social capital, your ties with others are one of the strongest predictors of how long and healthy and happy lives you will lead. Folks who have fewer ties with others in neighborhoods and even outside their neighborhoods ... don't have a longer life expectancy.

So how do you address problem when commutes are getting so much longer?

Sander: I think we as Americans get bombarded with images of the happy life and assume if we get the guest bedroom, or we get the two-car garage, or we get the you-name-it ... that suddenly we are going to be happier. And all of the research shows, if the cost of doing that is living a lot farther than where you are working, you are chasing an elusive dream. Studies show that people consistently overestimate the happiness they are going to get from a bigger house farther away.

But isn't that a fundamental change to the American dream and the notion of "keeping up with the Joneses?"

Sander: Are the Joneses as happy as we think they are? I think it takes a lot less creativity to simply chase the same dream other people are chasing. I think it's a lot more worthwhile to step back and decide if that's a dream worth chasing. If people are more stressed, aren't happy, aren't living as long a life, it might be smarter to step back and blaze a different trail.

Sander is the executive director of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

asap reporter Chelsea J. Carter is based in Los Angeles, commutes to work and is completely happy.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.