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Why Commuting to Work Is a Really Bad Idea

Last updated 03/21/2024 by

Audrey Henderson
You’re sitting behind the wheel, stuck in standstill “rush hour” traffic – again. Or maybe you’re packed into an overstuffed subway car with several dozen of your new best friends, with no chance at all of being able to score a seat. The routine is stress inducing, but you figure it’s just the price you pay for being able to afford a detached house with a real yard. Or perhaps you know how tough the job market is, so you just feel fortunate to have somewhere to commute at all.
Related article: 8 Reasons Why It’s Cheaper to Work From Home
While both of these sentiments are understandable, what you may not realize is just how costly your daily commute really is, and not just in dollars and cents. If you truly understood how much you’re giving up, you may be tempted to move – or turn in your resignation.

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Let’s Look At Some Statistics

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Above we have a map that shows how many workers commuted by public transportation across the US. Of course, the usual suspects are emphasized. New York, DC, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago are all well-known for their subways and bus systems. When we think of a New Yorker, or a city-slicker, we inevitably conjure up the image of someone hopping on and off the tram all day. We don’t think of how often they commute (multiple times a day), how long it takes (about 25 minutes one way–see below), or how much it costs (about $2-3 each trip). It’s just the cost of living in a big city, right?
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Think about it. An hour or more every day spent in transit for thousands, heck, millions of people is a lot of time wasted, and a lot of money spent just getting to a job. Makes you wonder why more people don’t simply work at home, doesn’t it?

The Cost in Dollars and Cents

If you drive to work, you may already have an idea of how much you spend on gas, parking and tolls. If you commute by public transit, you probably budget a certain amount for transit fare. Either way, the costs add up. But how much?
One 59-year-old commuter totaled the expense of her 2.5 hour driving commute over the course of her working life for this Reuters article. The total was an eye-popping $43,000. For commuters on public transit, the average fare per mile in 2010 was a heavily subsidized but still pricey $3.61 per mile, according to a report published by CityLab.
You may be able to get a break on at least some of your commuting costs. The IRS provides a deduction on your federal income tax returns of 55 cents per mile for business-related driving. That figure can make a significant dent in your commuting costs, especially if you drive a smaller, fuel-efficient car. Many companies also provide free or subsidized transit passes for their employees.
Nonetheless, the costs of getting to work take a significant chunk out of the average American paycheck, especially for low-wage workers. According to Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, commuting accounts for 6 percent of the income of the working poor. For low-wage workers who drive alone to their jobs, that percentage jumps to 8 or even 9 percent of their total income. This hefty figure is largely due to the fact that many low income communities have few or no job opportunities for their residents.

Re-Calculating Commuting Costs

That lengthy commute also likely has a larger impact than you think on your household budget. We often like to imagine that taking the train is cheaper than dealing with the expense of a car. And sure, a $3 fare a couple of times per day costs the same as a large frappuccino or a bad smoking habit. But if you compare transit fare and the damage sitting does to your body to pricey drinks and unhealthy habits, you’ll be hard-pressed to truly think favorably on using public transportation day in and day out. And what if you factor in how much your income really comes to after spending so much on transportation?
Commuting Stats2
With a car, when you add up the money you spend on gas, parking, insurance, maintenance, licenses and tolls, that “affordable” house in the suburbs may not seem so affordable after all. This is especially true if you have to drive everywhere– to buy groceries, to take your kids (or yourself) to school or to socialize – along with commuting every day for work. This is the principle behind the H+T (Housing + Transportation) Affordability Index created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. According to CNT, residents in many suburban areas devote more than 45 percent of their household budgets on housing and transportation related costs alone. That’s right – almost half.
None of this accounts for the time you lose sitting behind the wheel or jammed onto a bus, commuter train or subway. According to a 2011 report published in LifeHacker by “Mr. Money Mustache,” commuting a modest 80 minutes each day equates to an extra workday each week, adding up over a decade to 1.3 years of working time. Those hours represent a significant opportunity cost – hours you could have spent with your family, pursuing a hobby or, as seen below, in a bigger house closer to work.

At the Expense of Your Health

There also no tax credits or deductions to make up for the toll that commuting takes on your body and your psyche. According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, longer commutes correlated with increased obesity and higher (bad) cholesterol levels, fatigue, anxiety and chronic pain. The New York Times described several troubling studies that linked lengthy commutes with health-related problems such as cardiovascular disease, high blood sugar and depression. You might not be sitting at a desk, but you’re still at risk of the sitting disease. (Slate)
These health problems can be life-threatening. A study produced by Umea University in Sweden found women who lived more than 31 miles away from their jobs died sooner than women whose jobs were located closer to their homes.

The Cost to the Environment

America presently has 30 percent of the world’s cars, which produce half of exhaust emissions worldwide. The EPA estimates that fuel-powered motor vehicles account for 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the country. And one-third of smog-producing air pollution and 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to vehicles on the roads.
Hybrid or all-electric cars produce fewer (or no) carbon emissions, of course, but still present potentially detrimental environmental effects. For instance, if you live in an area where coal-fired power plants are common, you may be indirectly contributing to greenhouse gas emissions even if you purchase a plug-in all-electric car.
Electric cars produce more acid rain and algae blooms than gasoline powered cars, but less than the amount produced by diesel-powered vehicles. Batteries in electric cars contain rare earth metals as well as lithium, zinc and copper that are energy-intensive to produce. There is also the issue of how to responsibly dispose of electric car batteries once they have reached the end of their useful lives. (Environmental Leader)
Carpooling or commuting by public transit is arguably less environmentally harmful than driving to work alone every day. After all, a car carrying four people or a bus full of people means that there are that many fewer cars on the road. But the vast majority of buses, subways and commuter trains still consume fuel and produce carbon emissions.

Make Your Commute Less of a Trip

You may be thinking that you would love to be able to work from home or move closer to your job, but you simply don’t have a choice. You can still make your commute more productive and less environmentally destructive. Plan your errands in advance so that you can accomplish several in a single trip. Try an alternate commuting route to avoid bottlenecks that waste gas and fry your nerves.
You can also make the trip to and from work more enjoyable. If you drive, try listening to good music or one of these must-read audio books. You could also practice a new language through audio lessons. If you get stuck in traffic, use the opportunity to really take in your environment or meditate. Or simply decompress with quiet contemplation. You’ll arrive at your destination less frazzled and ready to tackle your inbox at work or wind down at home at the end of your day.

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Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.

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