Time and Space: Happiness, Mobility, and Location

We spend time to afford more space. We commute further to get more land. But the more time we spend traveling to our remote land, the less time we have to appreciate it.

Elements of Access: Transport Planning for Engineers, Transport Engineering for Planners. By David M. Levinson, Wes Marshall, Kay Axhausen.

If we work 8 hours per day, sleep 8 hours per day, the maximum daily commute would be 4 hours each way. However in that case you are driving 4 hours for a bed, and have no time to appreciate it (ignoring holidays and weekends). Where we live really doesn’t matter much (aside from other family issues).

If we worked at home, we would have 0 minutes of commute, and 8 hours to enjoy our land. Where we lived would be very important (this is of course complicated by other family members work, school, etc.)

People generally choose under a 30 minute commute (one-way), leaving 7 hours a day to do other things. This includes both the appreciating the neighborhood environment and the physical structure itself.

Consider a daily time budget, which is largely locationally independent:

  • 8 hours sleeping
  • 8 hours working
  • 1.5 hours traveling (say for a worker, 60 minutes commuting and 30 minutes other travel)
  • 1 hour at other out-of-home activities
  • 3 hours in front of a screen
  • 2.5 maximum number of hours to enjoy your location.

So every 1 minute less spent traveling is 1 minute more at the margin to enjoy your location. If an extra minute spent traveling (from 90 to 91 minutes say) reduces time available to enjoy the place (from 150 minutes to 149) minutes, we have to ask if those 149 minutes at the newer place are 0.67% “better” than the 150 minutes at the older place. Maybe they are.

Spending 30 minutes more travel (e.g. 15 minutes each way) reduces time available from 150 to 120 minutes. Now we have to ask if the minutes at the new location spent are 20% “better”. Maybe they are. But it is hard to expect to be 20% happier, or 20% more likely that you will be happy, from physical surroundings when so much of your life will be similar.

The data on happiness is complicated. This article by Eric Jaffe summarizes the research which claims people in small towns are happier than people in cities. How much? About 10%. That is of course not directly comparable to our 20%, since it encompasses the happiness of the whole day, not just the marginal time. But even if commuting is the least pleasant thing people do, it still might be worth it for a better environment. Happiness may also be improved by working less, though this article doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, or seem terribly feasible.