Shorter commutes make for more reliable workers

By Chris McCahill

There’s no shortage of research suggesting that longer commutes can take a toll on workers’ health and happiness. But if that doesn’t concern employers and public officials, a new study out of Australia shows that longer commutes also translate into lower job performance and considerably more missed work.

Using survey data, the researchers found that an average commuter (someone traveling about 9 miles each way) is absent 56 percent more often for health reasons and 82 percent more often for other reasons, compared to someone who commutes less than one mile. People traveling more than 30 miles are absent an additional 22 percent for health reasons and 30 percent for other reasons. While they could not tie the effects specifically to workers’ travel mode, the researchers did find absenteeism (unrelated to health) was higher among women and higher earners. They suggest this has to do with cultural factors such as expectations that women will have more family-related responsibilities, while higher earners may feel more comfortable missing work.

The effect of commute distance on job performance wasn’t as strong, but there are age-specific relationships between mode choice and job performance. For instance, car commuting is linked to higher performance among workers under 35, while transit commuting is linked to the lowest performance among ages 35 to 54.

Unfortunately, these patterns might already be familiar to employers, which are less likely to hire low-wage workers with longer commutes. This all reminds us that smart land use policies— especially those bringing jobs and housing closer together—and investments in reliable transportation options play an important role in bolstering economic productivity.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.