Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Unpredictability in Commute Times and Stress

Do you ever get angry at the MAX for being 15 minutes late? Are you really grumpy when it takes you an hour to get from OR-217 to downtown Portland due to congestion?
For me, I become so angry at the Trimet when the Transit Tracker says the MAX will be at my station at a certain time and then it never arrives. If only Trimet would just tell me the MAX is late! My boyfriend commutes from Hillsboro to North Portland  during the evening commute and the uncertainty in how long his evening commute will take drives him crazy.

A study at the Polytechnic University showed that unpredictability in commute times causes more stress in commuters than when they expect their commute to take a certain amount of time. The study surveyed rail commuters and tested their cortisol and motivational levels. Cortisol levels were measured by saliva tests and motivation was measured by a proofreading task that has been used before in other stress studies. The motivational levels were measured by how many mistakes they found while proofreading. Rail commuters who had a more predictable commute showed less stress but there was no significant evidence to show that it affected their motivational levels .

Another study tested two sample populations of working adults; one sample showed that commute time was related to stress and the other sample did not show significant correlation in stress and commute time. Could it really depend on predictability of commute time?

A couple ideas I thought of that could address commuter stress are having the option to telecommute and changing your travel mode to one that is less stressful for you. If you can’t make travel times more reliable sometimes telling a preparing someone for that can be helpful. Transportation agencies have begun to post travel times on dynamic message signs so that travelers know about possible delays and have the option to take another route. It can be less stressful just knowing how long your commute is going to take. 

Thanks to Yunemi for reviewing this post.


  1. About 20 minutes after I posted this, Joseph Rose posted an article about an ITS project on OR-217. Hopefully this will reduce stress for OR-217 commuters :)


  2. tell me about it.. as long the waiting time as more stress will get under your skin, I agree with you , it would be less stress to tell that it will be late few minutes than making people get anxious and look to the road waiting it for coming.

  3. I definitely agree. I work about five minutes (ideally) away from where I live along US-26. I work nights, so when the road is empty (and I can actually go the speed limit), the drive time is five minutes. When I leave my home to go to work, the drive can take up to thirty minutes. I tend to stress out a lot during these drives.

    When I take transit (to school), however, I never stress out, even if I am clearly going to be late. I believe that the illusion of control is what makes people stressed during commutes. The delusion that your driving can significantly change the speed with which you arrive at your destination is what causes the stress: feeling that you have the ability to floor it and get past the traffic, but never finding the opportunity to do so.

    With transit, there's nothing you can do to speed up your trip, so there's no point in worrying about it (I only stress on Trimet when my face is pressed up against someone's armpit). I even find myself walking scenic routes sometimes just because I know that it will have little impact on my final arrival time.

  4. I'm with Glen. Being in the driver's seat means that you have the power to get somewhere faster. On transit, you just have to sit and wait. The only time I feel stressed on transit is if I'm trying to cleverly take another route when I've either missed my primary one or am trying to compensate for a late bus.

  5. now days, smartphones have a lot of applications that give you the congestion and road status like Oregon Trip Checker or waze. I wish if they add the max, street car or bus real arrive time which would make less stress for the notified commuter.


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