Evaluating a Commute

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Correlation isn't causation, but this Slate article about the hidden costs of commuting otherwise makes an excellent point: People often underestimate how much time they lose commuting and, far worse, neglect to place enough value on that lost time.

If you are commuting, you are not spending quality time with your loved ones. You are not exercising, doing challenging work, having sex, petting your dog, or playing with your kids (or your Wii). You are not doing any of the things that make human beings happy. Instead, you are getting nauseous on a bus, jostled on a train, or cut off in traffic.


[A]verage one-way commuting time has steadily crept up over the course of the past five decades, and now sits at 24 minutes (although we routinely under-report the time it really takes us to get to work). About one in six workers commutes for more than 45 minutes, each way. And about 3.5 million Americans commute a whopping 90 minutes each way...
Ninety minutes each way! Let's assume forty-eight work-weeks per year and an employer who permits one work day at home each week. That's still 576 hours gone forever from your life each year -- 24 entire days, or 36 days of wakefulness, depending on whether you divide by 24 or 16 (the latter assumes eight hours of sleep per day).

Before we moved to Boston, we faced a stark choice following the first year of Mrs. Van Horn's residency: Live close in and pay through the nose, or live farther out and save money. It turns out that we'd have had to live really far out to save much money -- close to that life- and soul-sucking 90-minute range. My cost analysis fortunately included imagining what life would have been like minus three hours a day apiece. When I speak of our tiny, expensive apartment, I have certain hidden advantages in mind along with the obvious limitations.

-- CAV


Stephen Bourque said...

Good post! I spend two hours a day--ten hours per week--commuting, which is about 8% of my waking life, an unacceptably large amount of time to be wasted. I have managed, however, to turn this time to my advantage by using it to address another problem I have: lack of reading time. Thanks to my local library and resources such as LibriVox, I can now listen to things that I don't have time to read.

I've exhausted the selection of books-on-CD I am interested in at my library, but LibriVox has a lot of really good literature available that I can put on an MP3 player. (For example, I am currently listening to some Russian short stories, and in the last few months I've listened to Jane Eyre, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Barchester Towers.) The quality of the reading performances is inconsistent and sometimes incomplete (e.g. only the first two parts of The Idiot were available so I had to read the rest), but it is certainly better than nothing.

Of course, I would prefer to have no commute at all and spend those hours at home reading actual books. But the fact that this technology is available has enabled me to turn wasted time into something productive and fulfilling.

Inspector said...

I find it helpful to imagine your lost time in terms of work hours you're not being paid for. A $16/hour job with a two hour round trip commute is more like a $12.8/hour job when you calculate it. Too few people take unpaid "lunch" hours into account, as well. And that's not counting gas and such.

Especially interesting is when you start getting into higher salaries; for example a doctor's. Sure, you could save $100,000 or more on a house in a farther location, but your time's worth money, doc. An hour of commuting actually adds up to that or more pretty quickly on a professional pay grade.

I think the best way to look at it is the way that economics teaches us of opportunity cost. As an employee, you're selling your time at a specific rate. You need to be mindful of what that rate is, or risk being penny-wise and pound-foolish with it.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks, and your comment addresses one thing I left out of my post, which is the various ways to mitigate the lost time. My wife's family travels a lot and are huge fans of books on tape. Also in such a category would be podcasts and the like.

In Boston, and a few other areas with commuter rail, I've heard (but would do a few trial runs to be sure) that it's possible to do some useful computer work during a train commute, although I couldn't see how anything requiring significant concentration would be possible.


Your approach to accounting for the time compliments that in the article, in which the writer suggests asking for more compensation for such a commute. I suspect yours is more useful as others, not so mindful of the time, will outcompete anyone who actually does this.


mtnrunner2 said...

Your solution of living in a place that's close to where you need to be is a great decision.

I just got out of anywhere I'd have to do a long commute and I've never looked back. Well, Buffalo and Denver are medium-to-large cities, but there are plenty of places where the commute is reasonable. I was in NY and it was hideous -- to me. Cravers of the urban might love it.

I've also purposely chosen living places near highways and for about 15 years have had commutes that are 95%+ at 65 mph. That helps A LOT.

If you do have to commute, and nice rail line can help in that you can actually read or do work that you can't do driving.

Out here in a rather eco-conscious Colorado with fairly sunny weather, many people bike to work and meld the exercise and commute parts of their lives. Mine's too far but if I were closer to work I might consider it.

Inspector said...

Yes, it's indeed more calculated than the suggestion the article makes. Really, I've only touched on the surface of the method by which you *begin* to think about this. That's "think about," not "act upon." Heh.

Looking at another aspect of this, subject, I've had both good commutes and bad commutes, and I'm not talking about the distance.

A longer distance, no-traffic commute was actually a pretty pleasant experience for me. But, then, I rather like driving. YMMV. But, then, like we've said this is nevertheless something to be considered "work" in terms of your pay calculations.

A high-traffic commute is another animal entirely. I could very much see that sort of thing contributing to all of the health and life problems the article talks about. I'd generally recommend just avoiding that sort of thing, although if you properly account for your time and are comfortable with the pay, it might help your mental (or other) health to just think of that time as simply something you're being paid to do. And it may actually be a bit less stressful than other things you're paid to do, depending on your job.

But again, that depends on all of the factors I've highlighted above, and, well, too many other factors to list. But the important part is that it's useful for people to *think* about these things in explicit terms.

Gus Van Horn said...

Back in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, we had a 15-20 minute commute from a nice neighborhood, and in the privacy of a car. And low rent. That's a hard combination to get.

I was recently actually contemplating a long (hypothetical) commute into New York: 90 minutes was probably a charitable estimate. New York would be fun for a while, but not THAT way.

Long-distance, no-traffic commutes would be okay for me: I get lots of good thinking done under such circumstances and could probably capture lots of it. But I was younger when I did those, and time has a way of becoming more precious as you go on. I'm not so sure I'd want one again.