A train heads toward Union Station

Joining a global movement, commuters build lives while on the GO

Scientists to daily travelers: ‘Find habits that build life satisfaction.’

Mar 22, 2019

Researchers around the world are very interested in what Maja Cupples is doing right now.

Sitting quietly alone and ready to go home, Cupples is slowing down as the city around her gathers up speed for another day. After a long nightshift at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the 32-year-old pharmacy tech is smiling at the scene playing on her phone, as she waits for the next GO bus heading back to Mount Pleasant, in northwest Brampton, Ont.

Though solo for today’s journey, she’s really not so alone. According to a survey taken last October, up to 65 per cent of Metrolinx customers indicated they had taken GO for commuting purposes in the previous six months.

Not that it’s the only reason they travel with us. About a quarter (26 per cent) said they had used GO for trips into Toronto for the weekend, while another 30 per cent reported they had used the transit service for fun or entertainment purposes. Almost as many used it to visit family and friends, while 14 per cent counted on GO to commute to school and back again.

But it’s the habit of commuting which is inspiring new research and conversations. Each day, according to the most recent Statistics Canada numbers from 2016, almost 16-million Canadians commute – up 3.7-million from two decades earlier. And most of those people – like Cupples – move back and forth, like clockwork, from home to one particular place of work.

Now to the Canadian ebb and flow, add in the moments travelers around the world spend doing what Cupples is doing right now – including the estimated 1.8 trillion minutes Americans apparently spend commuting annually.

This may all seem like each trip is a duplicate of the ones before and those to come.

But that time shapes, not only society, but our identity, physical state, commerce, outlook and even level of happiness. A 2005 Statistics Canada study found more commuters liked their daily travels than didn’t like it. In fact, they liked it more than grocery shopping.

Once dismissed as ‘dead time’ – a pause leading to life on either end of the trip – the seconds, minutes and hours we spend in transition to work and home again are increasingly being poured over by academics, economists, social scientists, urban planners and even advertisers.

Love the time or hate it – pity commuters in Jinan, the capital of China’s Shandong Province, who on average, each spend nearly six hours a day getting to work and back – its importance is just now being fully understood.

David Bissell, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, has devoted much of his research to exploring the hidden narrative of our increasingly mobile lives. He’s particularly intrigued by the impact these moments have on our future, such as: “People who had studied for their degree whilst travelling by train, people who enjoyed the camaraderie of car sharing, people who really looked forward to doing the crossword quiz of a morning.”

His book, 

, is an academic ode to how we’re shaped by important but quiet moments amid the repetition of our transit habits.

“Certainly what is interesting is that a lot of traditional transport economics think of travel time as dead and wasted time – time that would be better spent doing other things,” he points out. “But what I found really fascinating in my project is that many people really valued their commutes for a whole range of different reasons.

“For some, it was the only time in the day that they had to themselves, to zone out, to daydream, to listen to podcasts, to watch movies. For many this was the only time when they weren’t doing paid or unpaid work for someone else. Even those people who really resented their commute, still found something positive to say about it. No one that I spoke to said that it was uniformly good or bad.”

During his many interviews with commuters for his studies, it became clear to Bissell that while those travels may have seemed incidental or insignificant, their stories usually came back to links with family and friends. He explains: “In other words, commuting is the thread that connects so many significant dimensions of our lives together.”

While we may seem as if, like Cupples as she finishes her nightshift and sits on a bench in downtown Toronto’s Union Station, we’re lost in our electronic devices, there’s a quantity of important interaction, observation and emotion. That may mean getting livid at someone who butts in line as you’re getting on a GO train. Or it may mean a smile exchanged as someone picks up your dropped PRESTO card.

Bissell says while we may socialize through our phones, he argues it’s still time we spend connecting with others.

“For regular bus or train commuters, people often sit in the same place in the same carriage every day, and so travelling communities do form, where people are looking out for each other, acknowledging each other, albeit in subtle but meaningful ways,” the researcher says.

And as far as social distractions, there is an historical precedence that came long before our smartphones. Ages ago, book sellers and newspaper publishers capitalized on getting commuters lost behind the pages of publications.

Juliet Jain, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Transport and Society, at the University of the West of England, Bristol, says commutes have always been about extending personal time.

“Few get paid to commute,” she writes in an email exchange.  “Prior to being connected on the move, people did take paper work to do on business trips – but personally I believe technology is enabling the boundary between work and non-work time to blur much more, particularly for commuters using public transport.”

Researchers are only now looking at the sociological and psychological aspects of commuters, says Dr. Jain, because traditionally, there was more interest in probing how people moved back and forth from work – rather than how the journey changed their lives.

Michael Wolf, a German photographer who has spent years capturing images of commuters on Tokyo’s notoriously overcrowded trains – one of his photo essays is appropriately called 

 – says most work travelers around the world have a common wish.

“They want as short a commute as possible, and are always glad when they have it behind them,” he notes, though even he doesn’t fully align with that pessimistic view.

Of his own more than hour-long daily commute, he’s learned to look forward to the portion that involves a ferry crossing, saying: “Every trip feels like (you are) going on a holiday.”

For hospital worker Cupples, the GO Transit trip she’s taking back home is not exactly a vacation. But the approximately two hours or more spent on the entire return trip is something she welcomes.

“I call it ‘me time’,” she says of the unwind that often includes watching an entire movie during the journey downtown and back out to her suburban community again.

She reasons that it helps her create a bridge between home and work. And that alone is interesting to researchers. Because there’s mounting evidence that shifting your mindset is as healthy as shaving minutes off your journey.

But that would mean seeing your commute as more than just a distance between two places in your world – that’s it’s an important part of your life journey. Or maybe, like Cupples this morning, just a time to – as the rest of the city is hustling off to job – watch a movie that makes you smile.

Canadians and their big commute – by the numbers:

  • 12.4 – The percentage of Canadians who use public transit to commute.
  • 36.2 – The average Canadian commute time in minutes, according to Statistics Canada.
  • 1 – Toronto ranks first in the country as far as workers using public transportation.
  • 59.5 – The percentage increase of Canadians commuting to work using public transit from 1996 to 2016.
  • 74 – The percentage of workers who commute who drove a vehicle to work, according to the last census.

The world and their big commute – by the numbers:

  • 6.3 million – The number of passengers India’s Mumbai suburban trains handle each day.
  • 1 – The ranking of Nice, in the south of France, in 2018 as the best place to commute.
  • 91 – Per cent of citizens in high-income countries who live within one hour of a city. In low-income countries, the number is closer to 51 per cent.
  • 2 – The average number of hours between home and work in Thailand.
  • 2 – The average number of minutes between home and work in Malawi.

by Thane Burnett Manager of editorial content for Metrolinx