The gridlock and dysfunction inside the Beltway may be directly related to the gridlock and dysfunction on the Beltway.
Research by a trio of political scientists suggests that growing political apathy and a lack of civic engagement among many Americans could be a function of the amount of time they spend commuting.
The study, “The ‘Daily Grind’: Work, Commuting and Their Impact on Political Participation,” asserts that the “depletion of psychological resources” caused by the chore of getting to and from the office each day is directly related to levels of political participation. Authors Benjamin Newman of the University of Connecticut and Stony Brook University political scientists Joshua Johnson and Patrick Lown say the “cognitive exertion” needed for ordinary Americans to engage in the political process often is drained during lengthy commutes.
“There’s research that suggests that tolerating [gridlock] on a daily basis negates one’s precious psychological resources,” Mr. Newman said.
The study also found that time spent at the workplace does not have the same apathy-inducing effect. The main reason: Work is not viewed as “ego-depleting” as a long wait in backed-up traffic, primarily because of the monetary rewards involved.
“When you’re starting up your workweek, you account for the time you’re going to be at work and you get rewarded for being at work by getting a paycheck. But commuting is sort of a side cost to working that just strains your [mental] resources,” Mr. Johnson said.
Coincidentally or not, the metropolitan areas with the longest average commuting times in the country, according to the Census Bureau, are San Francisco/Oakland, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The study focuses heavily on socioeconomic status and how that often determines the dynamics of the commute. According to the researchers, “Among lower-income Americans, a longer commute leads to a significant erosion of interest in politics, and in turn leads to significant decreases in participation. Among higher-income Americans, however, the relationship is reversed.”
“Lower-income people are the ones that are depoliticized,” said Mr. Newman. “Higher-income people are more likely to use commuting to their advantage.”
He suggests that more highly remunerated employees are more likely to listen to political or news-oriented radio while they drive, while those lower on the income scale are more likely to listen to music. Mr. Newman also theorized that wealthier people justify their commuting ordeals with their high pay, which is not the case for lower-income workers.
“People, particularly lower-income workers, need a job. They want to not worry about making ends meet, and they’ll think of other effects later,” Mr. Newman said.
Although the community’s political life may suffer from bad traffic patterns, longer commutes do not appear to inhibit a person’s social life. Instead of cutting out time with friends, commuters are more likely to sacrifice sleep and mentally strenuous activities to make up for time lost behind the wheel.
“Socializing doesn’t require as much cognitive exertion as, say, reading a newspaper or responding to an email,” Mr. Newman said.
A primary cause of stress among drivers going to and from work is the unpredictability of the traffic flow.
“People get used to their commute, so surprises can make them more angry,” said Jennifer Hughes, commuting researcher and psychology professor at Agnes Scott College. “Gridlock is out of your control.”
“If you think your commute’s going to be a half-hour and it ends up being an hour, it’s more likely to create stress and depletion of mental and time resources,” Mr. Johnson said.
Transportation consultant and author Alan Pisarski has been studying commuting in America since the mid-1980s, and he believes that stress stemming from commuting has decreased significantly.
Since 2000, the average commute time for Americans has barely changed from 25.5 minutes. Mr. Pisarski also notes that technology in the information age has made the average commuter feel less isolated.
“Though we’re not supposed to use it, the fact remains that the cellphone permits people to be much less anxious when they’re driving, and that connectedness that we have really helps reduce the stress,” Mr. Pisarski said.
While people facing regular deadlines or have Type A personalities often suffer more from lengthy commutes, Ms. Hughes said, some groups react positively to the time consumed in getting to and from work.
“Some mothers said they actually liked commuting. They saw it as their private time of the day where they could do what they wanted,” Ms. Hughes said.
The researchers all agree that the issue of commuting — and its corrosive impact on American democracy — defies easy answers. The solution is not as simple as advocating that workers live closer to their places of employment. An individual’s work location often is too expensive or is in an undesirable place of permanent residence.
“The fact is that people have a bunch of other things that they value and very often the commute is what falls out of the bottom of the calculus,” Mr. Pisarski said.
He also notes that two-thirds of households in America have multiple workers, so what is convenient for one family member may be inconvenient for another. One cure for crowded roads is not likely to be endorsed by many politicians.
“Unfortunately, commuting is often indirectly solved by unemployment,” Mr. Pisarski said.