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What a Pandemic Taught Us about Commuting

Written by student associate, Kyla Fung, Class of 2026

For many, one of the most drastic changes brought upon day-to-day life by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift to working (or schooling!) from home. For busy students and workers, this shift has also been accompanied by the loss of their daily commute, which has traditionally been viewed as an everyday hassle. However, a 2022 study paints commuting in a fascinating new light, noting the positive mental and physical benefits of public and active commuting as an opportunity to create one’s very own “liminal space.” Ultimately, the study found that creating a liminal space during one’s commute not only helps individuals destress and relax after a long day’s work, but also improves performance in the long run. Along with being better for our planet, commuting through sustainable transportation methods plays a crucial role in promoting a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle! But what exactly is a “liminal space,” and how can you create one, you may ask? Read on to find out more! 

Commuting creates a liminal space that promotes mindfulness and recovery from work 

In light of the pandemic, a new conceptual study found that the importance of commuting – for both the commuter and the planet – is often overlooked. The study was conducted by management scholars Matthew Piszczek and Kristie McAlpine, who study the interface between peoples’ work and personal lives.  

Upon the shift to remote work, the study found that people reported they missed having their daily commutes, realizing that the seemingly unimportant endeavor was actually a key part of their day, allowing them to mentally shift gears and destress. Specifically, Piszczek and McAlpine found that commuting aids in psychological detachment and recovery. During one’s daily commute, people were not only switched off from work calls and emails, but also less likely to be thinking about job-related problems. Furthermore, commuting was found to be a crucial time of recovery, allowing one to mentally recover from the energy used during school or work.  

Based on the numerous benefits they found, the researchers concluded that commuting allows people to create their own so-called “liminal space,” defined as a time that allows people to switch off and recharge between the transition between home and work. Creating a “liminal space” during one’s commute can prevent burnout, promoting better mental and physical health in the long-term.  

The importance of sustainable transportation 

Not all types of commute yield the same results. In fact, the best methods of commuting to apply the principle of creating a “liminal space” are public and active commuting, both sustainable transportation options that are not only better for your health, but also for the planet. 

In their study, researchers found that longer commutes were associated with higher levels of psychological detachment amongst participants, and people were generally more relaxed during their long commutes. Riding the bus or train instead of driving a car, for example, can be better for creating your liminal space, as you are not preoccupied with driving or stressed over road conditions, allowing time to let your mind wander and relax. Active commuting, similarly, allows you to incorporate daily exercise into your day, which is linked with many mental and physical health benefits. Thus, by utilizing sustainable commuting methods to create a liminal space in your commute each day, you can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also improve your mental wellbeing! 

No commute? No problem! 

For those who work from home on a regular basis, you can create your own liminal space by incorporating a “fake commute” in your day, such as a short walk before and after the end of a workday.  

How can I create my own liminal space? 

After reading about the multitude of benefits of taking time to destress during your daily commute, you may be wondering: how can I begin? To help you out with your sustainable transportation needs, we’ve provided some resources and tips below!  

Sustainable transportation at WashU 

WashU supports commuting as a way of promoting a healthy mental and physical study-work-life balance! To get more information on sustainable transportation methods at WashU, explore the resources below: 

  • The university’s Smart Commute page, provides a great overview of the many options at your fingertips. 
  • As our university’s one-stop resource for your commuting needs, WashU Rides is a free online platform to help you personalize your smart commute, including options for carpools, bike pools, and more. You can find people with similar routes and schedules, use the interactive transportation map, and more! For those who continually use sustainable transportation, our Guaranteed Ride Home program provides up to 4 free rides per year.  
  • If you’re interested in active commute options, consider becoming part of WashU’s Active Commuter Hub, which provides members free access to showers and lockers on the Danforth Campus East End! Free WashU community bike tune-ups are also available every April and October during WashU’s Active Transportation Month programming.. 
  • Public transportation is also another great way to get around while reducing your environmental footprint. WashU students, faculty, and staff are eligible for U-Passes, which allow you to ride the MetroLink and Metro buses for free!  
  • Check out Metro Transit System specific resources: 
    Park & Ride 
    Guaranteed Ride Home Program 
    CMT’s Try & Ride Program
    CMT’s Metro Monitor Program
  • Own an electric vehicle? WashU has charging stations located around campus for your convenience. For more information and instructions on how to use our charging stations, click here to learn more!  
  • Learn more about related research at WashU: People, Health & Place Unit

Tips on creating your own “liminal space” 

Once you’ve decided on the transportation mode for your daily commute, you may find some of these tips helpful in improving mindfulness and relaxation during your commute:  

  1. Unplug 

It may be tempting to spend your commute scrolling through social media or checking the endless notifications on your phone, but taking time away from today’s hyper-connected world can be a great way to destress from the frantic pace of day-to-day life. Depending on your preferred mode of travel, you could watch the scenery, read a book, or do a crossword puzzle! 

  1. Catch up with loved ones 

Taking time to socialize and connect with friends and family during your commute is another great way to destress – and many forms of commuting such as public transit or carpooling are perfect opportunities to do so. You can even try coordinating your commute with friends – making these social connections can make your commute more worthwhile. 

  1. Make it active 

Actively commuting, such as walking or biking, is not only a great way to get exercise, but has numerous benefits for the environment and your mental health!  

Whichever method of transport you may prefer, choosing a sustainable option can allow you to better practice mindfulness while also reducing your carbon footprint. Next time you embark on your daily commute, try creating your own liminal space using our tips above!