February 2007

Grant Results

SUMMARY

From March 2002 through August 2005, researchers at Polytechnic University Department of Humanities & Social Sciences (Brooklyn, N.Y.) investigated the effects of commuting by car versus train on physical activity and stress among commuters traveling from New Jersey to Manhattan.

Key Findings
Findings are from an unpublished article and an article published on the American Public Transportation Web site:

  • Train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per workday than did people commuting by car.
  • Some 40.4 percent of train commuters walked at least 10,000 steps per day, while 14.8 percent of car commuters walked that much. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend a daily physical activity standard of 10,000 steps.
  • People commuting by car reported significantly more stress and a more negative mood than did those commuting by train.

Funding
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported this unsolicited project with a grant of $260,232 to Polytechnic University Department of Humanities & Social Sciences.

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THE PROBLEM

Commuting by car is likely to result in less walking than commuting by train, according to researchers at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y. Both types of commuting can be stressful; both car and train studies have found that predictability of the trip and commuters' sense of control are key elements in modulating stress. The researchers found no studies, however, that directly compared these two transportation modes' effect on physical activity level or stress, particularly under natural commuting conditions.

In 2002, New Jersey Transit implemented a new train service ("Montclair Direct") that allowed commuters from 10 stations in New Jersey to ride the train directly to Penn Station in Manhattan, rather than having to change trains in Newark or Hoboken, N.J., for the ride into Manhattan.

In the mid-1990s, New Jersey Transit had made a similar improvement in connections on another train line. After this change, the researchers at Polytechnic had compared the stress levels in train commuters before and after the improvement in service.

The researchers had funding from the New Jersey Department of Transportation to conduct a similar study on commuter stress for the new Montclair Direct service. In addition, the researchers believed that the service change offered an opportunity to study commuters who switched from car to train. This would enable the researchers to compare the effects of commuting by car versus train on physical activity and stress among commuters.

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RWJF STRATEGY

RWJF has been supporting ways to increase physical activity through community design and redesign and to build a stronger knowledge base from which to promote active living. Among RWJF's active living programs are:

  • Active Living Research is a program that stimulates and supports research to identify environmental factors and policies that influence physical activity — most recently focused on children's physical activity (for more information see Grant Results).
  • Active Living Resource Center is a program to improve health by encouraging collaboration among planning, health, and nontraditional entities for the purpose of designing activity-friendly communities (for more information see Grant Results).

RWJF also created the Active Living Network, a national coalition of opinion leaders, and leaders of advocacy and professional organizations with the ability to shape social, policy and physical environments. Its purpose was to integrate physical activity and access to healthy foods into daily routines. RWJF started funding the network in 2002; funding ended in April 2007. (RWJF grant ID#s 040248, 044921, 046502, 048287, 049658, 055230 and 057280).

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THE PROJECT

Researchers at Polytechnic University Department of Humanities & Social Sciences planned to conduct a longitudinal study of people who commuted by car into Manhattan and who expected to switch to the train with the new Montclair Direct service. They planned to measure drivers' commute-related physical activity and stress levels before the switch (when they were still driving) and after (when they were taking the train).

Recruiting car commuters proved very difficult since there was no single place to connect with these drivers. In addition, few car commuters switched to the train, even though they had expected to do so. So the researchers modified the study to use a cross-sectional design that compared car and train commuters matched for town of residence, income and other factors. A total of 122 car commuters and 55 train commuters participated.

The researchers measured physical activity levels by asking participants to fill out questionnaires and wear a pedometer (an instrument worn on the waist band that counts steps) for five consecutive weekdays. For measuring stress, they depended on questionnaires. See the Appendix for additional information on methodology.

The researchers presented findings at the Environmental Design Research Association 34 International Conference in 2003 and at the Cornell University Ecology of Obesity: Linking Science and Action Conference in 2005. See the Bibliography for details.

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FINDINGS

The researchers reported findings in an unpublished article, "A Morning Stroll: Levels of Physical Activity in Car and Mass Transit Commuting" and in an article published on the American Public Transportation Association Web site, "Leave the Driving to Them: Comparing Stress of Car and Train Commuters." See the Bibliography for details. Key findings include the following:

  • Train commuters walked an average of 30 percent more steps per workday than did people commuting by car. On average:
    • Train commuters walked for 10 minutes or more on 4.54 days each week.
    • Car commuters walked for 10 minutes or more on 3.12 days each week, a statistically significant difference from the train commuters. ("A Morning Stroll")
  • Some 40.4 percent of train commuters walked at least 10,000 steps per day, while 14.8 percent of car commuters walked that much. The CDC recommends a daily physical activity standard of 10,000 steps. Findings showed:
    • Train commuters averaged 95 percent of the recommended standard.
    • Those who commuted by car averaged 73 percent of the standard. ("A Morning Stroll")
  • Train commuters were four times more likely to walk 10,000 steps each workday than were car commuters. The commuters the researchers compared had similar incomes, education levels and commuting time and were of the same gender. ("A Morning Stroll")
  • People commuting by car reported significantly more stress and a more negative mood than did those commuting by train. Car commuters indicated that their commutes were significantly less predictable but required significantly more effort than the experiences reported by train commuters. ("Leave the Driving to Them")

Limitations

The researchers noted the following limitations to study findings:

  • The researchers used a cross-sectional study design that compared different car and train commuters rather than a longitudinal design that would compare the same people before and after switching transportation modes. This limited the establishment of causality: although the two groups of commuters were very similar, there could be differences between them that would affect the results for each. A longitudinal design looking at the same commuters would have been preferable.
  • Data on psychological stress came solely from self-reported questionnaires. Using data from additional objective measures would have added to confidence in the findings.

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CONCLUSIONS

The researchers offered the following conclusions in unpublished articles entitled "A Morning Stroll: Levels of Physical Activity in Car and Mass Transit Commuting" and "Leave the Driving to Them: Comparing Stress of Car and Train Commuters."

  • "It is important to find ways to increase the amount of daily physical activity people can engage in that are integrated into their daily routines. … the walking that comes as part of the train commute may be a relatively easy and painless means of reaching activity goals. … The present data suggest that mass transit has benefits for overall levels of physical activity and its demonstrated positive health benefits." ("A Morning Stroll")
  • Choices of commuting mode "that reduce travel time and effort and/or increase predictability may have important benefits to the worker and to the public at large. Reduction in stress could be another benefit of enhanced public transit infrastructure in addition to well-documented environmental benefits." ("Leave the Driving to Them")

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LESSONS LEARNED

  1. When designing studies involving changes in public services, recruit participants from organizations directly affected by the change, rather than the general public. It was very difficult to recruit people who commuted to work by car since there was no central way to connect with them. For future studies, the researchers plan to enlist organizations moving to different locations as sources of participants. These will offer, in one central location, people whose commutes will improve as well as others whose commutes will worsen. (Project Director)

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AFTER THE GRANT

As of April 2006, project staff planned to present findings at the American Public Transportation Association Conference in New York City in June 2006 and at the International Conference of Applied Psychology in Athens, Greece in July 2006.

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GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION

Project

Studying the Effects of Car Versus Train Travel on Physical Activity and Psychological Response of Commuters

Grantee

Polytechnic University Department of Humanities & Social Sciences (Brooklyn,  NY)

  • Amount: $ 260,232
    Dates: March 2002 to August 2005
    ID#:  044743

Contact

Richard Wener, Ph.D.
(718) 260-3585
rwener@poly.edu

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APPENDICES


Appendix 1

Methodology

Participant Recruitment
Researchers used multiple methods to recruit people who commuted to Manhattan by car, including:

  • Leafleting gas stations.
  • Advertising on radio, local newspapers and cable television.
  • Putting flyers on New Jersey cars parked in Manhattan parking lots.
  • Renting a plane with a banner to fly over the George Washington Bridge (which only resulted in a woman calling the FBI).
  • Putting a banner ad on the New Jersey E-Z Pass Web site (which produced the largest number of participants).

These efforts did not produce the desired sample size and, in addition, many of those who did agree to participate did not actually switch to the train, as they had expected, after introduction of the direct service to Manhattan ("Montclair Direct"). Therefore, the researchers changed to a cross-sectional study design and recruited train-commuting participants of a companion study to participate in this study as well.

The companion study, with funding from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, examined stress levels in train commuters before and after New Jersey Transit implemented the new direct service. The researchers recruited train commuters for this study through signs and flyers at the railroad station.

The final sample included:

  • 122 people who commuted by car.
  • 55 people who commuted by train (of the 164 included in the companion study). These 55 train commuters agreed to participate in additional data collection for physical activity.

Data Collection
Researchers collected data as follows:

  • Participants wore a pedometer for one workweek and recorded their steps from the pedometer on a daily log form.
  • Participants completed several questionnaires:
    • Long version of the International Physical Activity Questionnaire (amount, kind and context of physical activity).
    • Background Information Form (home, family, work, commute, etc.).
    • Mood Form (tense-relaxed, friendly-irritable, etc.).
    • Well-Being Form (feelings in the past 30 days).
    • Commuter Experience Rating Form (congestion, crowding, stress, control and predictability).

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)

Articles

Evans GW and Wener RE. "Rail Commuting Duration and Passenger Stress." Health Psychology, 25(3): 408–412, 2006. Abstract available online.

Wener RE. "A Morning Stroll: Levels of Physical Activity in Car and Mass Transit Commuting." Environment and Behavior, 39(1): 62–74, 2007.

Wener RE, Evans GW and Lutin J. "Leave the Driving to Them: Comparing Stress of Car and Train Commuters." American Public Transportation Association.

Presentations and Testimony

Richard E. Wener and Gary W. Evans, "Design for Active Living: Transdisciplinary Research Methodologies for Investigating Physical Environment and Activity Correlates of Daily Routine Behavior Settings, Mode of Transportation and Level of Physical Activity," at the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) 34 International Conference, May 21–25, 2003, Minneapolis.

Richard E. Wener and Gary W. Evans, "The Effect of Transportation Mode Choice on Daily Physical Activity of Commuters," at the Cornell University Ecology of Obesity: Linking Science and Action Conference, June 7, 2005, Ithaca, N.Y.

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Report prepared by: Mary B. Geisz
Reviewed by: Janet Heroux
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Jamie B. Bussel

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