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Longer commutes for cheaper rents bad for wellbeing – ESRI

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Commuting longer distances to access cheaper rents can harm wellbeing and mental health, the Economic and Social Research Institute has cautioned in a research paper.

In a study examining rental prices and commuting behaviour, the ESRI noted that increased journey times for commuters could also have negative monetary, health and environmental consequences.

The paper, by Achim Ahrens and Seán Lyons, finds that workers face a trade-off between high commuting costs and low housing costs when making a decision on where they should locate themselves.

The authors noted that the costs of longer journeys will fall partly on individuals but also on government budgets, as many countries or cities subsidise particular transport modes.

While the research indicates that difficult policy trade-offs may be required in the future, the authors said the link between rents and commuting distances may be weakened if there is a sustained shift towards remote working in the future.

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This could happen due to the “widening availability of high-speed broadband in less well-served areas or if technological developments, employer acceptance, worker preferences and public policy incentives are boosted by experience gained during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

In the absence of such a shift, however, housing costs in urban settings could rise.

“Both local preferences for restrictions on development in cities and national energy efficiency policies that increase the stringency of building regulations could affect the supply of housing in cities and put upward pressure on urban housing costs.”

Rise in rents

The research cited evidence that a rise in rents also pushes up commuting times.

“For example, a 10 per cent rise in rents within the top quartile of employment centres is associated with daily one-way commutes being longer by around 0.1 to 0.3 minutes nationally and by around 0.2 and 1.2 minutes for the Dublin metropolitan area.”

The association seems relatively small, the researchers said, but this may reflect a slow response by commuters to changes in housing costs. In effect, there may be time lags in the decisions people make about where to live and work.

Such commutes can harm wellbeing and mental health, and commuters may be exposed to additional air pollution, the researchers added.

“Our analysis also suggests that demand for housing in suburban areas rises with increasing rents in the city centre, which in turn may lead to sprawl: a dispersed low density urban structure.”

The researchers noted that some groups in society may bear the costs of urban sprawl more than others. “There may be distributional consequences to added commuting, as some socio-economic groups bear more of the costs of adjustment than others.”

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