ratpag Quantifies Just How Much Commuting Sucks out of You

Some things don't change at ratpag.

Some things don’t change at ratpag.

Studies often look at the cost of people sitting in traffic – presumably delayed getting to work, not buying stuff, whatever – due to congestion. That’s all well and good. But how about the cost on a good day? The cost on a day with no traffic – how much are Americans essentially paying for the joy of going to work?

Hmm…Census data is a little old (from 2009). The Census report does show that the average travel time to work was 25.1 minutes in 2009. When the Census started asking about travel times, in 1980, the average commute was just under 22 minutes.

So how to determine the cost of commuting – that purgatory between the heaven that is not being at work and the daily hell that is the 40+ hour work week? Well, you could go through some old DOT reports. That sounds fun, right?

Loads of fun.

We dug around for some info and came across, well…not a report. More like a “MEMORANDUM TO: Secretarial Officers and Modal Administrators.” We skimmed.

Dated September 28, 2011 – long before your author’s wild rollercoaster ride through the DOT – the memo rambles on about the need to determine the value of travel time and uncertainty and impact and whatever. The real stuff that we found includes “for local personal travel, VTTS [vehicle travel time savings] is estimated at 50 percent of hourly median household income.” In 2009 the median household income broke down to $23.90 per hour, meaning the VTTS for personal travel would be $11.95 per hour.

That’s all well and good, but is commuting really “personal travel”? According to the DOT memo: “In some cases, commuting is treated as a separate category, intermediate between personal and business, but more frequently it is included in personal travel.”

Now that’s bullshit. We don’t agree with that. We realize that you’re not likely to live at work (though our argument for more telecommuting follows this post) but we also realize that 25.1 minutes x 2 (for the round trip) x 5 (for a full work week) = 251 minutes commuting per week. That’s a lot of minutes – that’s a lot of hours!


Using the DOT’s $11.95 per hour personal travel rate, those 251 minutes come at a cost of $49.99 per week (this just for time – not factoring gas, transit tickets, extra congestion, and the like). That comes out to $2,599.52 for a 52-week work year, though we hope you get some days off in there.

Obviously, based on the DOT’s personal-time-is-50-percent-as-valuable-as-business-time formula, that cost would double if you considered your commute as entirely business travel ($5,199.04 per year). To be fair, even we can’t consider a commute as entirely business travel, but why not split the difference? Commuting, again, is that purgatory between work and pleasure, so why not consider it as being between work (100%) and personal (50%) travel – so 75%? We’ll call this the ratpag method. That gets us a 52-week cost of $3,899.28. That’s no small amount. ratpag operates on a $0 per 52-week budget. Could you imagine what we’d do with $3,899.28?

So we think it’s safe to say that commuting costs you something – your time is worth something and you’re spending that time on what’s at least partially a work-related expense. Whether you think that our numbers are ridiculous (they very well may be) or that those 251 minutes per week are just the cost of doing business, well, we aren’t likely to sway your opinion.

What we do hope you agree with is that those 251 minutes per week amounts to a lot of wasted time that could be put to more productive use. This leads us to our next post arguing for the much greater, much more widespread use of telecommuting (or teleworking, or simply working from home).

So come, join us, as we continue our never-ending crusade to keep people out of an office (while still getting paid) later this week.

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