How do different cities combat the chaos of commuting?

The commute to and from work can have a major impact on health, finances and happiness. All major cities will encounter their own unique transportation issues, but some have handled them better than others.

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Jan 16, 2019
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For city workers, regardless of where you are in the world, your commute to and from your workplace can have a major impact on your wellbeing and on your pocket. Whether you are yelling expletives whilst stuck in traffic in Mexico City, being forcibly squeezed onto a metro carriage in Tokyo or pedalling to your office in Amsterdam, the emotional toll of the commute is an important consideration when moving to a new city or country for work. All cities will encounter their own unique planning problems, and some have arguably handled them better than others.

In Rio de Janeiro, expats and locals alike endure one of the most unbearable commutes, according to a recent study. High fares, long waits and large distances to cover all contribute to a stressful journey. Indeed, any commute over 35 minutes can apparently lead to an increased cynicism towards an employee’s work. With this is mind, many employers have adopted more flexible working arrangements to mitigate employee burnout.

There are many cities where public transport is under-utilised, a bit of an afterthought or just non-existent and where the car is definitely king. One city which is best to avoid if sitting in traffic drives you round the bend is Los Angeles. L.A. has the dubious honour of being the world’s most gridlocked city with drivers spending an average of 102 hours in congestion in 2017. Similarly, most workers in the Nigerian capital Lagos are resigned to spending large portions of their day stuck in the notorious traffic. Because of the daily standstill, employee happiness and productivity suffer and so in turn does economic output. A good example of the dire traffic situation in Lagos came from a colleague of mine who did not heed the advice of hotel staff and allow the recommended seven hours to cover the 30km to the airport and ended up having to cross the central reservation and dodge oncoming traffic in order to arrive at the check-in desks on time. 

The predominant mode of transport in a city has an impact on the air quality, which can sometimes lead to a smoggy, wheezy experience for new arrivals. The ECA Location Allowance Calculator takes pollution into consideration and recognises the potential impact it can have on an assignment. However, many cities are finally starting to address the pollution problem. For example, Hanoi is investing heavily in public transport and although it seems completely unimaginable for anyone who has spent any time there, will introduce a complete inner-city motorbike ban by 2030. 

By introducing congestion charges, encouraging rideshare schemes and designing improved cycle path networks some cities are championing various environmentally friendly ways to arrive at work. Many employers offer incentive schemes to encourage their staff to bike to work and the Dutch government has gone as far as to encourage companies to offer financial rewards for every kilometre covered, in order to move people away from cars and public transport and to encourage them to get on their saddles. 

Furthermore, on a recent research trip to Bolivia I was able to make the most of La Paz’s magnificent and revolutionary ‘Mi Teleférico’ cable-car system which criss-crosses the highest capital in the world. Dubbed the ‘subway-in-the-sky’, this innovative solution to the city’s traffic problems and mountainous topography has provided an affordable, predictable and comfortable alternative to bus travel. The system has slashed commute times, saved tonnes of carbon emissions and also treats users to incredible views of the snow-capped Illimani and other surrounding peaks. The first completed line connected La Paz with El Alto but more and more stations are sprouting above the metropolis to further expand Mi Teleférico’s reach and continue to ease the burden on La Paz’s chaotic road network. The master plan allows for 18 lines in total and already the system has had an impact on social cohesion as the previously poorer, isolated communities of El Alto can now travel and integrate more readily.

Another South American mass-transit triumph is the immaculate Medellín Metro. As well as shortening travel times and connecting previously inaccessible parts of the city, this acclaimed piece of urban planning is also an important cultural symbol. It was built amid a backdrop of violence and lawlessness in the most chaotic years of Pablo Escobar’s control over the city, and is viewed as a symbol of hope and progress which the locals treat with great respect.

The location of an expat’s accommodation in relation to their workplace clearly has an impact on what mental state they will be in as they arrive at the office in the morning. Our Accommodation team has recently expanded our coverage and now publishes 323 reports covering 164 countries which provide valuable information about popular expatriate neighbourhoods. Also included are expected travel times and details on public transport to help expats avoid ending up with an “extreme” commute. Transport infrastructures vary considerably all over the world and whether you walk, drive, cycle, train, tuk tuk or dogsled to work - the commute is an important consideration in any international assignment and one that shouldn’t be overlooked.  

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ECA International

ECA International is the market leading provider of knowledge, information and technology that enables businesses to manage their international reward programmes. Partnering with thousands of clients on every continent, we provide a fully integrated suite of quality data, specialist software, consultancy and training. Our unparalleled insights guide clients as they mobilise their most valuable resource: people. We make the complex world of international mobility simple, providing clients with the expertise and support they need to make the right decisions - every time.

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