Are Long Commutes Bad For Democracy?

Policy wonks across the ideological spectrum tend to agree that cities should increase their housing density by altering or eliminating certain zoning regulations. Because city dwellers have higher productivity, more housing allows more people to earn the higher wages that accompany such productivity. Furthermore, as Edward Glaeser’s work has shown, living in cities tends to enhance cognitive capacity, creativity, and cooperation. In short, people in urban centers are closer to good stuff.

Denser cities also lead to shorter commutes, and a new study (pdf) led by UConn’s Benjamin Newman suggests this creates another benefit: Citizens who are more politically engaged.

Newman found that time spent commuting — but not time spent working — leads to declining political participation, and that the negative impact of long commutes is largely focused on the poor.

Our results indicate that, even after controlling for a variety of relevant individual and contextual factors, time spent working exerts no impact on one’s level of participation. An increase in time spent commuting, however, is found to lead to a significant decrease in participation.


We find that political interest serves as a significant mediator between commuting and political participation, but that this mediated effect is itself moderated by individual income. Among lower income Americans, a longer commute leads to a significant erosion of interest in politics, and this in turn leads to significant decreases in participation. Among higher income Americans however, the relationship is reversed; increased time spent commuting among those with the highest income is found to significantly enhance interest, which in turn, increases levels of participation.

The reasoning is that commuting creates psychological strain above and beyond other time-consuming situations, and that this strain depletes cognitive or emotional resources that could be put into political activism. The high salaries the rich earn in return for their commuting time helps mitigate this strain, and thus the effect of commuting is focused on the poor.

If long commutes do disproportionately decrease political involvement, they have the potential to create a negative feedback loop. A lack of housing in urban centers will push the poor further out into the suburbs, which will create a longer commute, which will decrease the political activism necessary to bring about progressive policies aimed at increasing the housing stock in urban centers, which will ensure the poor continue to get pushed out into the suburbs. Building enough housing thus becomes even more urgent.

More broadly, the study highlights the absurdity of the notion — albeit one that’s largely confined to Fox news — that low-income people are illegally usurping political power through things like voter fraud and the nefarious acts of ACORN. In reality, our political and social systems stack the deck against low-income voters, and as a group they require significant assistance to merely reach the same level of influence as wealthier citizens. That the daily struggle to get to work inflicts more harm on the political involvement of the poor is just one more example of it.
Newman, B.J., Johnson, J., & Lown, P.L. (2013). The “Daily Grind”: Work, Commuting, and Their Impact on Political Participation American Politics Research DOI: 10.1177/1532673X13498265

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