For an increasing number of employees in many European countries, commuting long distances to and from work has become an everyday experience. Among other trends, this is due to the growing suburbanisation and changing labour markets. Consequently, commuting attitudes and behaviour are becoming salient issues for spatial mobility and transportation research and policy. Planners and policymakers often regard people’s reported willingness to commute long distances as an important predictor of their potential future commuting behaviour. Results from cross-sectional studies seem to support this, finding that individuals who currently commute long distances express a greater willingness to do so in the future. However, the nature of this relationship has not been clearly explored yet. Does a higher commuting willingness increase a person’s likelihood of engaging in future long-distance commuting (defined as at least 60 minutes one-way commuting)? Or, conversely, does active long-distance commuting lead to an increased willingness? Heiko Rüger, Nico Stawarz, Thomas Skora (Federal Institute for Population Research, BiB) and Brenton M. Wiernik (University of South Florida) explore these questions in a recent paper published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology based on longitudinal data from Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland.
To explore the relationship between commuting willingness and behaviour, the authors use two alternative sets of theoretical models. First, rational actor models focus on commuting willingness as a causal driver for the decision to commute. In these models, people evaluate their potential commuting options and then actively choose a course of behaviour based on a balanced consideration of their contexts, alternatives and their personal characteristics reflected in their willingness. Second, in contrast, habituation and adaptation models consider the willingness to commute as a result of the current commuting situation. Accordingly, over time, employees might be better able to cope with the negative effects of commuting, such as developing better time management to compensate for reduced leisure time, or they may change their attitudes based on their experiences.
The findings provide only limited support for the hypothesis that willingness to commute is a driver of future commuting behaviour. Other variables, like educational level, are more strongly associated with starting and stopping commuting. Indeed, individuals often seem willing to deviate from their own preferences by accepting long commutes, for example, to meet family needs or avoid economic hardship. In contrast, the analyses support the hypothesis that changes in commuting behaviour lead to changes in commuting willingness. Starting long-distance commuting is associated with subsequent increases in willingness to commute, whereas stopping long-distance commuting is associated with decreased willingness to commute. Overall, the results reveal that willingness to commute cannot be considered a stable individual characteristic but that it is subject to change in many ways over time and must be viewed in close relation to current commuting behaviour. Willingness to commute can be understood as an outcome of commuting behaviour, not a cause. For spatial planning and policy, this could mean that willingness to commute is a poor predictor of future behaviour, suggesting that reported willingness to commute may not be a good indicator of population mobility potential. Moreover, this could mean that one has to be cautious about decentralizing urban facilities, services and destinations. After all, even if it significantly increases travel time and stress for commuters, they are likely to get used to it, making the decentralization process difficult to reverse.