The Travel to Mental Health

Whether it’s about timing, or how busy your streetcar will be, our minds go a million miles a minute playing out every scenario of how this commute will go.

“Attention all TTC customers, we’re experiencing a delay”, if you’ve lived in the city of Toronto this announcement is all too familiar. In the process of hearing this sentence almost daily, we’ve all felt completely helpless to it. In reality, what can we do when our subway gets stuck in a dark underground path between two stations? We simply have to accept it and hope for the best. But in an enclosed train we can’t help where our mind may take us. The first thought that might go through our minds might be the question of how long this delay will take. You might be thinking how you’re going to explain this one to your boss, because you’ve already used this excuse three other times this month. All these feelings, and all this time left thinking about them eventually begins to take a huge toll on our day and on our mental health.

The textbook definition of anxiety goes hand in hand with the feeling of helplessness. What could provoke this feeling more than leaving your commute in the hands of the city? When you step on the bus, or a train, or the subway, from the moment the doors close you lose control over your schedule and might feel helpless. Whether it’s about timing, or how busy your streetcar will be, our minds go a million miles a minute playing out every scenario of how this commute will go. According to Marlynn Wei, Psychiatrist and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga: 8 Weeks to Strength, Awareness, and Flexibility “Your ride to work is associated with increased blood pressure, musculoskeletal problems, hostility, anxiety, and lower frustration tolerance” [1]. This doesn’t only factor in public transportation, heavy traffic while driving has similar, if not more, harmful effects as well.

In a study conducted by The University of Montreal, they found that it only takes just 20 minutes driving, bussing, biking or taking a train to make you receptive to chronic stress [2]. This causes damage both physically and emotionally. The same study found a commute over 35 minutes causes cynicism in a person’s everyday life, leading to risks of depression. A 2017 UK Mercer study found those who commuted for more than an hour were 33% more likely to experience depression [3].

This is hard hitting news for those who commute in the city, seeing as the average Torontonian spends a total of 96 minutes commuting both ways each day. Expert Market, a UK based business product comparison service conducted a study of 74 cities, with a population of more than 300,000 citizens [4]. In the study, Toronto took the lead for worst commuting rates in North America and sixth overall in the world. The criteria for ranking people’s travels were based on seven factors, average time spent getting from point A to Point B, average time waiting for a bus or train, the average distance of the commute and the percentage of riders who make a transfer at least once throughout their commute.

With an average of 96 minutes travelling one can only imagine the percentage taken out of our daily lives just to get to and from work. Brown University found that the average person spending an hour commuting daily gets 30.6 percent deducted time for sleep, 16.1 percent deducted time for exercise, 5.8 percent deducted time to have shared meals with family and 4.1 percent deducted time to do any kind of meal prep [5]. When we have less time for sleep, we put our brains and physical capacity at risk, when we can’t exercise, we take away from our overall health, when we miss out on time with family we feel isolation, and when we can’t prepare food we resort to eating fast food and take out. All of these factors lead to an unhealthy lifestyle both biologically and emotionally.

The increasing number in delays commuters face annually does not help matters either. A recent study found adding 20 mins to a daily commute made people as unhappy as a 19% pay cut [6]. In a paper published by The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, researchers found that in areas with over one million citizens, on average commuters experienced 63 hours of extra travel time during 2014; equivalent to each commuter paying $1,440 in what is called “congestion tax”. The paper also notes, the average American spent an extra 42 hours traveling in 2014, which has doubled since the 1980s [7].

Congestion and delays are the direct result of inequity between the demand of travel and the capacity transit systems can handle. Populations will continue to increase, in Toronto more and more people are moving to the city, so that means we need increased and better supply of transit. So how can we better understand our cities’ trends and populations to better serve them? Perhaps with a little help from data.

On a city level, being able to share your data anonymously and securely can help cut down commute times, discover accidents fast, and resolve them even faster. Citizens that choose to contribute data to the city can have their voice heard and be included in the analysis city planners conduct. Not everyone is invited to participate in transit surveys, but more people can be represented through their data acting as proxy for their voice.

On a personal level, seeing your planned route in the palm of your hands and having alternatives based on the flow of traffic and the time of day can help you know when you should leave the house and how much time your travel will take. With data you can also keep track of your sleeping patterns, your fitness habits and track your mood to give you better insight into your life. If you have the data in front of your eyes, you’re more likely to do something about it. Think about your wearables that track your steps, when you can see the actual number of steps taken, you’re more likely to try to bring the count up. The same goes with keeping your mental health in check. The more data you have, the more you can outline trends and try to take action. While the studies we mentioned may be true for the sample demographics surveyed, we are all much more complex than “the average” and we can sometimes better understand ourselves by simply having access to our personal data and observing information about our behavior.

We live in a time where creating and collecting data is the norm. Why not use it to improve our lives? There’s still a long road ahead of us when it comes to mental health but imagine if we had the ability to choose how we traveled down it.