How Commuting Affects Sleep

Commuting is cutting off a significant part of our day, and it can be a very stressful, boring and exhausting experience that can affect our health and sleep.

It seems that today it does not matter if we live in a big city or the countryside, because it looks like it is almost impossible to avoid the daily commute.

In cities it appears that we have everything just around the corner, but when your job or school is in one part of your town, you live in second, your boyfriend in third and you take yoga classes or whatever in some other area, commute becomes an important thing that takes quite some time. And people who live in the countryside know it well too, whether they want to supply themselves with groceries, go to work or drive their kids to school, they also spend a significant amount of their time in transportation.

Commuting is cutting off a significant part of our day, and it can be a very stressful, boring and exhausting experience that can affect our health and sleep. Longer commute time has been connected to sleep deprivation, especially in cities that have bad public transit systems. Americans already have a huge problem with sleep deprivation since the number of people who sleep less than 7 hours is continually rising. With that in mind, it seems that workers who commute longer sleep less in order to try and get everywhere on time.


How Long Do We Commute?

For example, if you work from 9 to 5, you are going to leave your house at least half an hour earlier, if you are lucky enough and live somewhat close to your job so you can walk or drive quickly to it. Many people travel longer to work, if they catch rush hour in the morning, or later in the afternoon when the majority is going back home from work, those 8 hours of work time can quickly turn into 10 hours, or more, all together with commuting. It can be somewhat more comfortable if you are sitting in your car, listening to your favorite radio station or music, but people who have to use subways or buses often do not have that luxury even to sit. Except for a few lucky ones, most people have no other choice than to stand and squeeze with others. People also often have to combine two or more means of transportation, whether they travel from suburbs or a different city, and that all adds up to that time we spend at work, because we commute mostly for our work, and we cannot do many other productive things while commuting.

If we count that we work 40 hours per week, that means that we spend a quarter of our week at work, without counting in the commute time. According to the newest data released by US American Community Survey, the average American will spend 26 minutes while commuting to work in one way, so that is approximately one hour per day, and that number has only grown during the past decade. Twenty-six minutes in one way does not sound so bad, but if you do that five days a week, for 52 weeks in a year, that is around 9 and a half days wasted in traffic each year. The duration of one average holiday we spent commuting each year, but at the moment for the majority it is impossible to avoid that.

Long distance commuting delivered a category of people called mega-commuters, which refers to people who travel 90 minutes or more in one way, only 3% of Americans fall into this group which spends at least three hours commuting each day.

All means of transportation can be bad for our sleep, but researches have shown that people who commute using public transit are suffering more from it. Those commuting by bus are feeling the most negative impact since they tend to develop depression and anxiety.


Longer Commute = Shorter Sleep?

As commuting became a part of our everyday life, it also became one of the things that cause our sleep deprivation. A study based on the data collected from the American Time Use survey showed that each minute of commuting means 0.2205-minute less of sleep time. Another study examined the sleep habits of commuters who use Long Island railway transit. Questionnaires were left at each station and researchers collected answers from 21.000 people during the six consecutive weekdays. They came to the conclusion that longer commute hinders people’s ability to get enough sleep each night. According to their results, people who commuted longer than 75 minutes were sleeping for 97 minutes longer during the weekend than on weekdays, they also napped more often during their commute in comparison to those who needed 45 minutes or less to get to work.

The US Census publishes data about commute times for each state every five years. Those rates were combined with CDC’s data on sleep deprivation for every country in an attempt to find a correlation between the lack of sleep and commute time. It is considered that around 35.2% of Americans are sleep-deprived, while the average commute time is 26 minutes in one way. When the numbers are compared on the state level, there is a clear connection between those two, states that are on the top of sleep-deprived countries are also the ones with the longest commutes, such as Hawaii, New York, Maryland, and Georgia.


States with longest commute times Sleep deprived states
Maryland, 32 minutes Hawaii, 43.9%
New York, 31.6 minutes Kentucky, 39.7%
New Jersey, 30.4 minutes Maryland, 38.9%
Massachusetts, 28 minutes Alabama, 38.8%
Illinois, 28 minutes Georgia, 38.7%
Virginia, 27.7 minutes Michigan, 38.7%
California, 27.2 minutes South Carolina, 38.5%
Georgia, 27 minutes Indiana, 38.5%
New Hampshire, 26.3 minutes New York, 38.4%
Hawaii, 26 minutes West Virginia, 38,4%


Comparison of states that have the shortest average commute distance to work and the lower percentage of the sleep-deprived population also confirms this connection. Some of those states are Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Iowa, and Kansas, their citizens are getting enough sleep without wasting too much of their time on the commute.

When it comes to the battle of the different cities in the US, none is ideal in terms of commute and sleep, but when the numbers got compared, some of them stood out. The Brooking Institution did the review of quality of public transit which was then compared to CDC’s data on sleep deprivation in top 500 states in the US to see how the best and worst cities for the commute in public transit correlated with the worst and best cities for sleep. The criteria used for this survey included the number of available jobs within the 90 minutes predicted for the commute and the number of people who live within 0.75 miles of a bus stop or any station.

The main question was, how convenient and accessible it is to use public transit in certain cities. As it was expected, there is not a city that has public transportation available to each one of its residents, and the same is with sleep since over one-third of the Americans are getting less than 7 hours of sleep each night.

Some of the cities that have the worst public transit also have the above average percentage of sleep-deprived people. The average national sleep deprivation among Americans is now 35.2%, and it keeps rising, so take a look at this chart below to see which cities are the worst for sleep and commute. For example, residents of Palm Bay, Florida, are more sleep deprived than the average citizen of the US, they have a small percentage of jobs that are accessible with public transit which means that they need to wait longer just to be able to board on.


City Sleep deprivation Public transit coverage Job access
Palm Bay 39.5% 64.1% 7.4%
Knoxville 39% 28% 25%
Augusta 41.1% 30.2% 16.4%
Youngstown 46% 36.3% 14.2%
Riverside 38% 77.3% 8%


On the other hand, cities with higher coverage of public transit such as San Jose, Fresno, Salt Lake City or Tucson, have a below the average level of sleep-deprived population. For example, 90% of people who live in Salt Lake City live near the station or stop of some public transit, and they have 58.9% of jobs accessible within the 90 minutes. Their average commute time is below average at 22.5 minutes while the wait time during the rush hour is bearable 8.5 minutes. Sleep deprivation is also below the national average at 32%, which is not significantly lower but it is an improvement.


Effects of Commuting

Commuting is one of those annoying aspects of our modern and urban lives, we want to make it everywhere, but in order to get somewhere we have to commute, sometimes more than once in a day, sometimes longer than predicted, which all affects our daily to-do schedule. Besides sleep deprivation, here are some main negative impacts of commuting on our life.

  • Time – many things that are lost can be easily compensated, but time is not one of them, and commuting is nothing but a huge waste of our time. We lose time being stuck in traffic on the roads and in public transit too. New York, for example, has a problem with subway delays which significantly increase commute duration. Some offices allow their workers to stay longer at work, to compensate for the time loss due to commute, but that is just cutting off your personal time even more.
  • Pollution – exposure to air pollution coming from vehicles is one of the leading causes of asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer. One slightly “cleaner” solution is to use trains, but they are not as widespread as other means of transportation.
  • Stress – as we mentioned, commuting can be stressful since we are under constant pressure of getting somewhere on time. However, many unpredicted things can happen and prolong our commute, but that is not the only cause of stress. A study from 2004. showed how longer commute affects health, the researchers examined the saliva from people who commute with the subway from New Jersey to Manhattan and came to the conclusion that longer commute can be connected to higher levels of a stress hormone called cortisol.
  • Immunity – many things can have an impact on the way our immune system works, and if you keep getting sick and catching up on every possible virus, this can be the result of stress, unpleasantly long commutes and the fact that we get in touch with many microbe-ridden surfaces while we are commuting. We advise always wearing an antibacterial gel and listening to some relaxing music to combat stress.


Napping Commuters

Many people find the commute necessary but not so pleasant experience, and it is hard for them to relax enough to fall asleep at a public place, surrounded by strangers. On the other hand, some people sleep in a sitting position with no problem in subways, trains, buses, without worrying too much about missing their stop. But, how is it possible that most of them wake up just on time when they need to get out?

It is somewhat similar to setting an alarm clock; once we set it, our brain gets prepared to wake up at a particular time each day. If we regularly commute within a specific time-based schedule, it will become a habit for our body and our internal clock will get used to it if we repeat it each day at the same time, it will become a routine. Another reason can be the fact that although we are napping, we still can partially hear the station announcements because our brain is not completely turned off during those naps since we tend to wake up often for a few seconds.

If this is not something that is working for you, and you have slept over your stop, it could be because you have a deep sleep or your body is not so used to it, or that you are not repeating often enough that it can become a pattern. But there is no reason to worry, snoozing your stop is also one way of training yourself to wake up at a certain time. If not, you can always set the alarm on your smartphone approximately three to five minutes before predicted time for your stop.


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