Is there such a thing as a happy commuter?

Early starts, infuriating delays and the daily battle for a seat – commuting on public transport can be rough. It’s no wonder then that fewer than half of UK workers commuting by train, tube or bus are satisfied with their commute.

How we feel about our journey to work can have a big effect on our overall well being. In our new study surveying more than 2,000 UK workers, those that are dissatisfied with their commutes are less likely to look forward to work, with 22% saying they never do. They are also more likely to be looking for a new job, with 28% admitting that they are always on the lookout for a new role.  

Ruth Egon, 34, spends three hours a day commuting from Dunfermline in Scotland to Edinburgh and back for her job working for the Scottish Government – a much longer commute than the average for the region, which is 24 minutes long.

“I love my job, but it gets difficult sometimes to have the motivation to get up and get out,” she says. Egon and her husband are considering moving into the city just to cut down her commuting time. She wonders if the £160 she spends on her train tickets each month could be better spent on the mortgage on a flat in Edinburgh.


Train pain

Egon is far from alone in getting down about her train journey. Research published earlier this year by Which? suggests 100,000 people have moved house to escape their daily train ride. Despite the fact that train commuters tend to earn more and are more likely to apply for flexible working hours, our study reveals that the train is the least happy mode of transport.

The National Rail’s 2018 timetable shakeup wreaked havoc on the UK rail lines, and according to some experts knocked up to 15% off house prices in commuter towns that suffered from a reduced service, the Telegraph reports. But people were unhappy with train services before the new 2018 timetables crippled the lines. In the National Rail’s 2017 Passenger Survey, two thirds of commuters said they believe train journeys are not good value for money.

While factors like cost and disrupted services make train travel particularly unpopular, our study suggests that passengers’ unhappiness could also be influenced by the fact that train journeys tend to be longer than other commutes. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we discovered a direct correlation between commuter satisfaction and time, where the longer the commute, the less satisfied the traveller.

We found that 70% of train commuters travel 30-75 mins compared to the majority of walkers (84%) and car drivers (72%) whose journeys last less than half an hour. (To those two outliers that walk 76 – 90 mins to work each day – we salute you!)

On the move

By contrast, those who walk to work are the most happy, even more satisfied than those who have no commute at all. Cyclists are also more positive about their daily grind, with 82% feeling satisfied with their commute to work.

While walking or cycling is free from timetables and cramped carriages, the exercise also causes the body to release endorphins – chemicals which boost happiness and relieve stress. Regular exercise improves our overall mental health over time. According to a 2018 study by The Lancet Psychiatry, people who exercise have 43% fewer self-reported “bad” mental health days than those who don’t.

Transforming time

According to Totaljobs’ Commuter Calculator, UK workers spend over a year of their lives commuting. However, this time spent in transit doesn’t have to be ‘dead time’.

If we were paid an average salary for our time spent commuting, we’d make an extra £81,000 over our lifetimes – a figure that’s more than three times the country’s average annual salary. Taking on extra paid work during a train or bus ride might not always be practical, but there are other ways to make the time feel more worthwhile.

Having always loved drawing, Egon decided to turn her commute into an opportunity to explore her creativity. Everyday she makes sketches of her fellow commuters, documenting their facial expressions and the way they interact (or rather, ignore) one another.

“Sketching has helped me enjoy my commute more,” she says. “It’s been interesting observing different characters and is quite therapeutic. It helps you let go and get into a different, more creative space on the way to work. I think it’s good for your mental health.” The artist hopes to publish her drawings in a book.

From captive to creative

Like Egon, Lucy Russell, 43, once had a long train commute between South London where she lives and Eastbourne where she was studying to become an occupational therapist. On route, the patchy internet connection made it difficult for her to do her coursework, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Left alone with only her thoughts to amuse her, Russell dreamt up an idea for a play based on her experiences of having IVF.

“Because I was kind of captive on the train, I was able to finish a basic first draft even though I’d never written anything before,” she says. “I never would have done it without that time from the commute. Because you’re on a train anyway, it’s not so frustrating if you need to make changes. You don’t feel like you’ve wasted time. Psychologically it feels OK and makes you braver than you might otherwise be.”

She went on to develop the play, called Stuffed, with her actress sister and theatre company Red Squash Theatre. The pair got four star reviews for their two week run of the show at the Brockley Jack theatre in London last year. Now Russell is working on a second play and actually misses the time she had commuting. “I would really encourage people to commute,” she says. “I miss that time to try random stuff that I would never otherwise have seen myself doing. I’m actually finding it harder to write now because I’ve got no period when I’m captive. I’m looking for ways that I can recreate those conditions.”

Worth the sacrifice

Three quarters of the people in our survey (75%) claim they would extend their commute for their dream job. An hour long journey seems to be the upper limit, with only 12% saying they’d commute for longer than this for an ideal role. The majority (63%) said they’d put up with a commute over half an hour, with less than half (47%) happy to stretch their commute to 40 minutes or more. 

So while commuting plays a large role in people’s overall job satisfaction, it is not the most important factor. We found that working hours, job security and the ability to use skills or education ranked as the most important aspects of a role when it comes to UK worker’s happiness.  


About the author: Kate Hollowood

Kate is a London-based writer covering topics spanning cultural trends, design, business innovation and film.