Reuters’ Bullshit Commuting Post

I saw a post titled: “Your commute is costing you more than you realize” on Reuters and saved it away to read this morning. I was keen to read as I drive a bit for my job, and previously commuted about 90 minutes a day (round trip) to get to work. I just wanted to…

I saw a post titled: “Your commute is costing you more than you realize” on Reuters and saved it away to read this morning. I was keen to read as I drive a bit for my job, and previously commuted about 90 minutes a day (round trip) to get to work. I just wanted to see what they found out.

Here’s their opening shocker:

Specifically, the four years when Phillips was driving 2.5 hours each way to her job and back, every single workday.
The total tab, she figures: $43,000. And that is just in gasoline – not oil changes or repairs, not the value of her time.


Oh, wait, that’s $43,000 over four years, not just like one year. Though it only accounts for fuel. But let’s also remember that is a 2.5 hour commute, when the article lets us know that on average an American commutes just 25.5 minutes. ((Though they don’t say if that is round trip or not, seems like it is only one leg of the commute.))

So really that $43,000 number is better stated as $895.83 per month — as humans are inherently bad when numbers and time spans get too long. Now, that’s still a pretty large number, but Reuters isn’t done shocking you yet — because they have an even bigger number to throw at you:

“So if you have a 20-mile commute to work, multiply it out: 40 miles each workday times 50 cents a mile. And there are 2,500 of those workdays in every decade, so that ‘not too bad’ commute is burning at least $50,000 every ten years.”

$50,000! That’s bigger than $43,000. Oh, over ten years, so like $416.67 per month then. You know: half of the other number? Yeah… ((In case you are wondering the $0.50 per mile figure is something the government sets the bar at for employee reimbursement for travel in a personal vehicle. You can also use that figure as a tax deduction if you track miles — consult your tax person about that though.))

So what we have in this article is a bunch of useless bullshit, and I’ll tell you why: it’s useless because Reuters offers no baseline of what they average cost of commuting is and without that baseline you cannot know what the numbers they show you really mean.

Is $416.67 per month a lot of money for commuting? I don’t know because I don’t know what the average cost of commuting is, so that I may compare the figure with the average. Instead let me do some math that Reuters should have done:

  • $416.67 per month is actually better expressed as $19.23 per day (assuming 52 work weeks a year, and five work days per week from that original $50,000 per ten year figure).

Ok, so it costs about $20 a day for that 40 mile (total daily) commute. Is that a lot?

I honestly don’t know, but I am inclined to say it’s probably only a little higher than average. If I assume that the average American must take powered transportation of some ilk to work, then we can assume they are at least going to pay about $4 per day in bus fares. ((Maybe less, maybe more in your city. Best I recall it’s $2 base in Seattle.))

But that’s on the bus, and we know Americans love cars. So let’s talk about Tacoma, WA — considerably cheaper than Seattle — and assume you drive for 25.5 minutes to work, park, and then drive back home 25.5 minutes.

I plotted a 25 minute drive from the lovely University Place, to downtown Tacoma. That drive is 9 miles one way, or 18 round trip. Using that $0.50 figure that comes out to $9 per day. But wait, then you have to pay for parking, so you’ll buy a parking pass. In Tacoma you can get one for $40/mo, but let’s say you get one for $30/mo. That means your daily cost is now $10.38 per day for parking and vehicle expenses.

Now we have a really good baseline to go off of, and we can now compare the data like so:

  • The average American spends between $11 per day on their commute to work. (If they drive.)
  • A 20 mile (each way) commute to work will cost you almost $20 per day on average if you drive.
  • A stupidly absurd 2.5 hour commute (each way) to work will cost you an mind numbing $42 per day.

None of this accounts for your time wasted commuting, so be sure the commute is worth the salary and do the math.

UPDATE: Reader Luke writes in with a poignant comment on this:

For those that can’t or don’t want to telecommute, I do think there’s value in looking at monthly cost rather than daily cost because rent/mortgage is generally considered monthly. Taking your $11/day number, that’s $238/mo. That means that if I currently have an average commute but can find somewhere within walking distance of my work, I can spend an extra $200/mo on my house and still come out ahead.

That’s a really great way of looking at this. I struggled with day/month views of the numbers as I think the month view is equally as hard to look at as the day breakdown. But equating it to rent/mortgage is a fantastic way to look at it.

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