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Project Objective

The primary objective of this study is to increase our understanding of degree of stress experienced by mass transit commuters and the impact of that stressful experience on commuters- lives, psychologically and psycho physiologically, at work and at home. We also seek to better understand the individual and trip factors and conditions that can serve to increase or ameliorate stress from the trip.

Project Abstract

This proposed study builds upon and extends the previous research in a number of ways. First, an important limitation of our initial study is a small, homogeneous (largely white, middle and upper-middle class) sample. From the stress literature in general, and work on commuting there are good reasons of believe that gender and possibly ethnicity moderate such effects. Males and African-Americans reveal greater physiological reactivity to stress. Females react more strongly emotionally and, because of their more typically heavier domestic responsibilities vis-a-vis of men, tend to experience commuting as a greater source of stress. The proposed sample will represent a more diverse population.

Second, our pilot work revealed that the time of the commute and, possibly, the degree of predictability helps explain why commuting is stressful. If we can better understand what factors account for the ill effects of commuting, we will be in a better position to design and implement public transit improvements that address efficiency, economic and consumer health. To investigate more fully how these underlying mechanisms might account for commuting impacts on riders health and well being, we need a broader range of commuter time and predictability, plus a larger sample size.

We also wish to examine several other characteristics of the commuting experience that may contribute to stress. These include mode of transit, number of stages in the commute, perceived control over the commute, and effect and qualities of the microenvironment of the car (crowding, temperature, noise levels, available seats, etc.). The proposed sample will be selected to include a larger sample size and show a greater range of variation of the commute - time, number of mode changes, etc.

Third, our initial study focused primarily on the commute experience during the commute. Chronically challenging conditions, however, create situations that can spill over into other life domains - work and family in the present case. Do improved commuting conditions that lower stress contribute to higher job satisfaction, longer tenure on the job, enhanced performance? Are happier, more relaxed commuters more patient and socially engaged with their mates and children? Questions such as these are obviously important and to date remain unexamined. In the proposed study we will more closely examine 'spillover' effects.

Fourth, we can improve our research design by building in a longer time period of observation. If transit improvements lead to true reductions in stress, as indicated in our previous study - do they last? Or, are the results we uncovered simply a short-lived 'honeymoon effect'? We can also strengthen our research design by the inclusion of standardized assessment tools that account for individual differences in emotional judgments. Negative affectivity can be measured and then statistically modeled, allowing greater precision in self-report measures.

Fifth, this study provides the opportunity for a rare direct comparison among commuters using different modes of transportation. There are no studies in the literature that compare car, bus and train riders, even at one point in time. By conducting our pre-change survey among car and bus riders in the affected area, we have the likelihood of finding some who will switch to the new service, giving us the chance to assess difference among modes both between and within subjects.


Task Descriptions

In this proposal we describe a research agenda that is intended to follow-up and extend our previous studies of transit commuter stress, conducted under the auspices of the UTRC. That research project took advantage of the implementation of a major mass transit improvement by New Jersey Transit (known as the 'Midtown Direct Service') which provided a 'one-seat ride' into New York City for many commuters who previously had to transfer in Hoboken in order to take Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) trains into New York City. The creation of this new service provided a natural experiment since some riders switched to the new route, while others continued to use their previous route. We studied psychological and psycho physiological responses to these commuting options, using a quasi-experimental, pre-post change, field research design.

We found that riders on this new line had reduced levels of stress, measured by multiple methods, whereas riders who continued using the Hoboken-PATH option did not. The stress effects seemed to be mediated by the time of the trip - that is, the reduced trip time of the Midtown Direct Service seemed to be a primary factor in the reduced stress to riders. Predictability of the trip was also inversely correlated with stress, but did not distinguish between the commuter groups. These results were largely replicated with a student group who were randomly assigned to ride the same lines acting as simulated commuters. Therefore our two initial pilot studies showed that (i.) Commuting is stressful and; (ii) changes in conditions of the commuting environment affected the degree of stress experienced.

The study of Midtown Direct riders was unusually powerful because it took advantage of a significant change in the mass transit infrastructure to create an experiment without the limits and artificiality of the laboratory setting. The results were powerful even though the data was limited by the small sample size, lack of breadth and diversity among the backgrounds and type of commute of the riders, and the use of a single pre-trial data sample.

Two new forthcoming significant changes in the New Jersey mass transit system - the Montclair Connection and the Secaucus Transfer - provide an unusual opportunity to replicate and extend these findings, and in so doing learn a great deal more about the relationship of the mass transit commute and rider stress. In this research effort we will make use of the same approaches and measures that were used in the previous study - to allow for comparability of results - adding to the data collection in several respects to provide more detailed understanding of these phenomena. For example, we will assess more carefully conditions on the train cars, which should affect stress (such as crowding and noise), and we will address issues of stress spillover to the workplace.





Student Involvement

Throughout the investigation, both graduate and undergraduate students will participate in the different activities. Their involvement would include data collection, data analysis, computer application and drafting.

Relationship with Other Research Activities

Continuation of previous investigations


Technology Transfer Activities

See benefits below.


Benefits of the Project

We anticipate that this research will increase our understanding of the nature of the psychological and psycho physiological impact of the commuting trip upon the commuter, including the degree of stress experienced and the impact individual and trip related factors. We will report confirmation or disconfirmation our research hypotheses. We expect to include analyses of findings that may have importance for system planners and managers as well as those attempting to market mass transit to automobile commuters. The initial year of data collection lays the groundwork for our longitudinal evaluation of the impacts of rail commuter line improvements on the health and well being of commuters. During this first year we expect to recruit our sample and collect critical pre-transit improvement data on NJDOT commuters. 


Key Words

Commuting, Travel, Travel Behavior, Commuter Stress, Psychology