Commuting — Is it destroying your soul?

In the past two weeks, I had to travel to downtown Toronto from my comfy suburban roost twice to attend meetings of boards on which I participate.  I love the work on these boards and the meetings (aside from preparation — meeting packages are often over 200 pages in length) are interesting.  But I do not love the commute to get to the meetings and each time I make those trips, I am grateful that this commute is no longer part of my daily grind.  For those readers who are still working and commuting every day, avoiding the hassle of the daily commute may influence you to form a plan for your retirement.  For retired people who find themselves spending too much time driving to visit family, to engage in your ‘fun’ activities, or to attend meetings/events, read on.

The commuting experience

One of the board meetings occurred early in the morning, so I had to respond to the 6:00 a.m. alarm — no time to sip coffee in bed while perusing the morning paper, sharing laughs with my husband and cuddling my cats.  Instead, I listened to traffic reports to decide which routes to take, worried about the weather report (freezing rain that day), and searched for ‘professional’ clothes.

The traffic was worse than I remembered it.  A commute that took one hour only a year ago now took one and one-half hours.  Had the economy improved that much? Was the congestion on the parkway worse than usual on that day?  Finding parking took longer than expected.  I arrived late for the meeting with the sinking feeling in my stomach as I hate tardiness.

Overall, the experience left me thinking about such hectic mornings and how commuting is soul-destroying for those who have to travel long distances to get to work.  Toronto, like many cities in North America, likes to consider itself a world-class city but public transit is over-crowded, slow and dirty.  Using a car is the best option but the highways and streets are congested with too many vehicles and a rush hour that starts at 5:30 a.m. and lasts until 8:00 p.m.

My Observations

From the moment I got into my car I felt the tension build.  Although I had allowed lots of time, I felt frustrated with every delay — too many cars on the on-ramp, no left turn signal at some traffic lights, and accidents that created slow-downs as cars changed lanes to move around disabled cars.  While there are differences of responses to frustration, a certain amount of stress builds during a commute especially when a deadline for arrival looms.  Anxiety builds with the lack of control when stuck in traffic.

Everybody seemed impatient and I found my patience decrease with the amount of time that elapsed.  My hands were tightening on the steering wheel.  It was difficult to maintain a safe stopping distance from the car ahead of me when other drivers kept filling up the space.  I found myself narrowing the space between my car and the vehicle ahead of me despite awareness that this was not the safest way to drive.  No amount of yoga breathing or soothing music helped restore equanimity.  The traffic congestion left me feeling stuck with no freedom to move.

I made a rough calculation of the number of hours of my working life that I had spent in traffic — at least 2 hours per day for the past ten years plus other work related travel to various cities and towns.  With an average of 200 work days per year — that is 400 plus hours of commuting per year — or more than ten work weeks (if your week is 40 hours!)  The commuting took over 4000 hours — just in the past ten years!  I dare not calculate the total time spent during a career of over forty years.  By any calculation that amount of time is too much of anyone’s life to spend in a car.

The cost of commuting

Most people know the value of their time on an hourly basis so calculating the dollar cost of the commute is not difficult — especially if you are self-employed and billing on an hourly basis.  If you work for a set wage, your calculation will be different but it is still worthwhile to know the cost of your travel time because commuting will be cutting into your work time or adding to your work time.  Commuting may also cost you in terms of health as commuting stress can lead to health problems.  Studies have shown that anxiety increases in traffic as feelings of lack of control escalate.  This can cause increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and changes to hormone levels.  Not good — regardless of whether you are in the midst of a career or retired.

The more important cost, however, is the personal time.  The more time you spend travelling back and forth to work, the less time you will have for enjoying your life — for play.  It shocked me last week when I overheard one of my yoga teachers, a robust young man, commenting that teaching and driving to class locations consumed his days — how sad for him!

Often commuting is a tradeoff to achieve lower housing costs or for a lifestyle that is away from the city.  The uncertainty of travel time spent in the daily commute may not justify such a tradeoff.  With more ‘just in time’ living even the most ideal lifestyle will be compromised by daily time loss frustration not to mention all those valuable hours, the real costs of gas, vehicle repairs and vehicle depreciation.

Coping strategies

Begin with awareness. How many hours do you spend in your car?  You may need to spend 400 plus hours per year to earn a living as was the case for me before retirement.  For people who are retired becoming aware of the time spent travelling to various activities is a step toward managing useless time getting around.  I am trying to use what I call the 20 kilometer rule –no more than a 20 km round trip per day unless the travel is for something very special.

Use travel time for thinking. As I reflect on how I managed the daily commute while working, I remember that I would  frequently turn off the radio and focus on planning, problem solving or decision-making — consciously working through some of the issues that I was needing to resolve in my work.  I confess that I also used much of the time for cell phone calls — before talking and driving became illegal in Ontario.

Accept that you are powerless. When faced with traffic that is at a stand still, put your mind into neutral and accept that you can’t do anything about it and that you are not responsible for the congestion.  This might be the time to focus on your breath to calm yourself or to tune into music you enjoy.

Change your route. Since retiring, my longest regular commute is from home to the cottage at Lake Huron — usually a trip that takes 2.5 to 3 hours.  By varying the route, there are more opportunities to see different parts of South Western Ontario.  Different routes have their charms such as the benefit of a traditional bakery or a cheese factory or a butcher that smokes his own sausages.  Within the city, changing your route can offer new challenges like taking more time but can also offer variety and interest.

Change your job — or move — or retire. Making changes in where you work or how you work (telecommuting, time shifting) may be options that allow you to recover some of the useless commuting time.  You might also consider moving closer to your work  so that you can walk or closer to public transit to recover precious time.  If retirement is an option — take it — for you will immediately gain more control over how and when you travel.  If you choose, as I have, to continue to stay involved in activities that require some commuting, remember that this is a conscious choice and not something that will stress you everyday.

No modern economy calculates the enormous impact of traffic congestion on productivity for people or for society.  Aside from pollution, accidents, fuel wastage, there are health costs, lost personal time, and emotional costs (road rage, anyone?).  My hunch is that calculations of the impact of traffic congestion are possible but not politically or socially wise.  As an individual, however, make your own calculation and decide whether the commute is destroying your soul.

Thank you for reading this post.  If you like my blog, please consider becoming a subscriber, email this to a friend, or tell others about postworksavvy. Ciao, Jeanette

3 Replies to “Commuting — Is it destroying your soul?”

  1. I believe that commuting has cost us our souls and/or peace of mind. So many aggressive drivers, thoughtless drivers, clueless drivers. Of course, I remember an old Disney cartoon blurb that parodied the fact that a very nice person can get into his/her car and thus turn into a raging maniac.

    It’s one of the top stressors today, IMO.

    1. I didn’t comment on the aggressive or thoughtless drivers. The cartoon you reference is a good reminder about how easy it is for any of us to turn into raging highway bullies when safely surrounded by a metal case! Have a safe day! Jeanette

  2. Good post, Jeanette, and one after my own heart. I lectured my daughter in BC about the time she spent commuting. Eventually she agreed and moved closer to her place of work. The road safety committee in South Africa, where road accidents are extroardinarily high, have billboards telling motorists that it’s better to arrive late than dead on time. Hold that thought when in high volume traffic.

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