The Average Commute, the Traffic, Effect on Wages and Your Life
Ah, the commute, what a wonderful thing. Especially, when it comes with a little side of traffic. The average commute is a slog that’s part of every day life and can be quite a hassle.
Those of us with careers near a city are well versed in the subject. We spend a good portion of our lives sitting in our car behind other cars. Unfortunately, not everyone’s commute is an enjoyable romp through the country side. Traffic makes up a good part of many lives and our average commute.
We’re not just behind cars. There’s cars to the left of us and cars to the right of us. Cars taking people to work at a slower pace than they’re designed to move.
In the end, it’s not the driving to work that bothers me, it’s the traffic. The commute wouldn’t be so bad if it was a straight shot to the office.
I’m the type of person who actually enjoys a nice long drive. It’s fun to get out on the open road with a location in mind, enjoy some music or a podcast and view the scenery. However, it’s not fun to be stuck behind dozens of cars that crawl like ants towards a bend in the road. What’s behind that bend? It’s probably more cars.
What got me thinking about the commute this time? It was a crappy commuting day!
My home is about 9 miles from work. On a weekend, where traffic is sparse, it takes me about 14 minutes to get from my apartment to my parking garage.
This particular morning, I left home at 8:30. As I got in my car, I got a text from a co-worker.
“Are you on this traffic on the highway,” she said, “I literally haven’t moved in 10 minutes.”
“Nope, haven’t left yet,” I responded, “I guess I’ll avoid the highway.”
“Good call,” she said, “there’s a car on fire, I think, I can see the smoke ahead of me and we’re not moving.”
“Glad I’m not stuck in that,” I said to myself and drove off determined to avoid the traffic. After all, I had the edge now, I knew information others didn’t, I’d get to work in no time at all.
I popped on a podcast and got on my way.
I pulled into my parking lot at 9:40.
The Traffic That Day
Waze took me around the city which was packed as people tried to find a way around the highway.
It wasn’t a terrible drive but near the end of my trip, Waze told me to get back on the highway. As any normal person who has given away his decision making powers to computer programs, I took the turn it told me in order to do so. I found a police car blocking the highway on-ramp in the direction I needed to go.
“Crap,” I said to myself.
I had to get back on the highway going back towards home.
At this point, I almost went back home but I had things to do at the office. I got off at the next available exit, turned back around and went back to work through the city avoiding the highway entirely.
In the parking lot, I parked my car and walked to my office, a few minutes away. I was annoyed as I sat down in the office right before 10:00 A.M.
I live 14 minutes away.
Today, ass in car to ass to seat time was one hour and twenty five minutes.
It got me thinking, how much time do we actually spend in our car on the way to work? How does this impact our life and are we effectively considering commute when looking at new job opportunities.
The Average Commute
According to the U.S. census, the average commute has trended up to 26.1 minutes. In some states, such as NY, it’s 33 minutes while others such as South Dakota see a sub 20 minute commute.
I’m not sure how much of that is traffic but for me, it’s about half. Days like today aren’t the norm but I would estimate that my average commute time is about 30 minutes.
That’s about double the 14 minute commute I would have if there wasn’t any traffic. Unfortunately, there’s traffic every day although it’s usually not an hour plus worth of commuting.
On top of that, I have about a 5 minute walk to the office after I park my car.
That means 35 minutes each way, each day I head into the office. It’s a bit above the average but not too far from what the average American sees every day they go into work.
I don’t know about you but seventy minutes a day is a lot of damn time to get to and from the office. Modern cars with all their technology have made that drive a lot less of a drag. There’s podcasts, books on tape and phone apps that help you get around as efficiently as possible.
That’s great and all and may help with the fact that the average commute is going up as more people pack into job dense areas.
I wanted to check out how much 35 minutes twice a day ends up being.
I popped into excel to figure out exactly how much a 35 minute commute was and the numbers surprised me. As a comparison, I did a few other commute times to see how people with better and worse commutes are doing.
The Time Spent Driving
First, note that the calculations above assume a 230 day work year. That’s 250 business days minus about 20 days of PTO. That’s an estimated average and may not apply to everyone but should provide a good baseline.
Secondly, holy crap, we spend a lot of time in our cars traveling to work.
The average commuter spends 8.3 days every year in their car or on a train. That number doesn’t even include any additional time they may have to walk into the office.
My number does and shows that I spend 11.18 days of every year moving between my house and my office seat. Half that time is spend in stop and go traffic which is not an enjoyable drive at all.
That means that not only am I working an 8 hour day but i’m also spending over an hour each day commuting. That’s a real time sink if I ever saw one.
The numbers get even crazier as your commute goes up. I know people near big cities often spend an hour or more each. That may be by car or train or what have you. A 75 minute commute each way is nearly 24 days each year spent commuting. That’s almost a full month!
During weekdays, we spend about 1/3rd of our time sleeping and about 1/3rd of our time working. That leaves about 85 days left for hobbies, friends and other things we enjoy. I’m already spending more than 10% time commuting and others are spending even more.
No wonder a lot of people hate the idea of working. You’ve got to spend eight hours there PLUS all the time it gets to get there.
This doesn’t even include the time that you spend getting ready for work each morning!
Now not everyone hates their commute and I don’t most days either. It’s a good time to listen to some music or a podcast or even a book on tape. Still, I’d certainly prefer to do all those things at home with my dog under a nice warm blanket during these cold winter mornings.
I’d also prefer doing it without traffic. If my commute was 30 minutes and it didn’t have traffic, it’d be a lot more enjoyable.
My commute is not the reason I’m looking to get out of this daily grind sooner than later but it’s one of the reasons. There’s only so much time we get in this world and spending so much of it in my car isn’t awesome. I’d much rather do something else with my time than sit in traffic.
The other aspect to consider is the mental grind of sitting in your car. We are people who like to move and progress and crawling on the same road every day is not progress. It’s sometimes more draining to stand in traffic than spend time at work. You can sometimes look at the people in metal boxes around you and see the frustration on their face.
Someone with an average commute and a 40 year career will spend 332 days of their life in their car. That’s nuts.
For me, it’d be 447 days, more than a year. I think you can see why I’d rather minimize that time by saving money now to have options later. Not every career has to be forty years and that can cut that time substantially.
Until someone invents teleportation tubes that shoot us straight to work, the commute will be there to eat away at your free time. Maybe self-driving cars will help with that as part of the frustration of traffic is dealing with the stop and go nature of it. It’d be much easier if I can just relax in a large space and watch TV or even take a nap!
The Commute and Your Salary
Looking at this stuff got me thinking. How much value do we place on our commute when looking at jobs?
Computers made telecommuting jobs a reality for many industries which is nice for those with the option to do that.
I’ve already shown how drastic the difference in commutes can be on your lifetime commuting time but do we really value that as much as we should.
If you think about it, your commute time is certainly part of the number of hours you work. Nobody’s going to pay you for it but it definitely impacts your free time. I’m only driving into the city because my job is there, I’m not doing it because I like it.
If I could sit in my pajamas and log on in the morning and avoid the commute and make the same amount then I definitely would. Some people enjoy the social aspect of the office and I do as well but most days, I’d rather just avoid the traffic and log on from home.
The above analysis showed you how much time we’re actually spending on the road but how does that impact our hourly wage?
When comparing a telecommute job to an office job, how much is that time saved worth?
I did a quick analysis comparing the effect of your commute on your actual hourly wage below.
This is a simple view of things that restates some of the info above but adds a salary aspect to it.
Imagine an employee looking at a variety of jobs with different commute times. The base job in this scenario is the telecommuting job with a commute of 0 minutes and a salary of $75,000. That’s an hourly wage of $37.50 and an adjusted wage of 37.50. The adjustment there is for the number of hours each business day spent commuting. Since the number is 0, the salary doesn’t change.
Now imagine that same employee has other offers too. Each one offers the same starting salary of $75,000 but has a different commute time. These range from 10 minutes each way to 75 minutes on the high end.
Look at what happens to that adjusted wage as the commute goes up. It goes down and it goes down quite substantially as the number of time spent on your commute increases. The same salary offered to an employee who has to spend 958 days in his career commuting looks a lot worse on an hourly basis than the telecommuting job.
In fact an employee with that salary has to make $20,000 more just to account for the hours spend in their car or on the train. That’s the equivalent salary at the bottom.
For me, a $75,000 telecommuting job is equivalent to an $85,063 job with my commute.
Now this doesn’t mean I’d take a pay cut like that to save on my commute nor does it mean that everyone should.
It does mean that someone who has the opportunity to work at home at the same salary should probably make that choice. There are still trade offs to consider even then. You’ll lose the camaraderie of the office and telecommuting jobs are sometimes less likely to allow for career progression than those in the office. However, if those aren’t a concern to you then telecommuting is a great choice to increase your free time and effectively increase your true hourly wage.
If the salaries are much different then the choice is a lot less easy. The truth is that working in the office is the norm for most people and does offer certain benefits that can outweigh the annoyance of a long commute.
A person who really hates their commute might make the choice to ditch it even if the salary is lower but the reality is that more money is generally better. More money affords a higher quality of life and allows you to save more. You’re certainly trading more of your free time for that money but that’s the reality with most things you do for money.
The other reality is that many people commute more to a job that pays a lot more. It’s easier to get a high paying job in a city than it is in the middle of nowhere. It’s just the reality of life that people follow money and that creates traffic and longer commutes.
This isn’t meant to be an all encompassing analysis of salaries and commutes. It’s just a fun little exercise to give another look at how your commute can affect other things than just your mood.
The average person spends a big part of their life sitting in a metal box surrounded by others. I don’t know about you but I’d rather not do that for more than a year of my life.
One nice benefit of financial independence and early retirement is the ability to cut that number down. I’ll still be driving places but I can choose when to go out and avoid the annoying times when traffic makes any commute less enjoyable.
Luckily, I do happen to have a job now that’s somewhat flexible around working at home. If I’m not feeling great or the weather is bad then working at home is an option. It’s still not the norm though and I’m in the office most days.
Days like the one with the 90 minute commute make me think about my commute more than usual. I can take a thirty minute commute each way as it gives me time to catch up on my podcasts but an hour plus on the way to work is no fun. It also made me think about a future home purchase and what that’ll mean for my commute. I’m already spending 11 days a year in my car, do I want to spend more?
I don’t know if people consider how much their commute impacts their life that often. I do know that the traffic is one of the more common complaints you hear each morning in the office.
“Did you catch that traffic on the way in, Bob?”
“Yea, I did, Rick, I do every single day.”
At which point Rick shakes his head in agreement and walks away.
Right now I feel decent about my commute but in the future, if that changes, I may just have to find a job that pays the same and allows me to telecommute. I’m not sure if that magical job exists but it might be a good transition from office life to the job I’ll have before early retirement. It’ll get me used to sitting at home and not having a commute but that’s still a long ways away.
Until then, I’ll keep saving in order to make sure I don’t have to spend over a year of my life just getting to and from work.
If I can cut that time in half then I can get over 220 days back that I would have otherwise spent commuting. That’s a pretty big number.
Oh and also, the car on fire that caused that traffic back up the other day. It was a dumpster truck whose haul caught on fire; a literal dumpster fire. Just like Traffic most days.
Great blog, I’m studying up on telecommuting for a new book I’m writing and looking for some people to interview about how it works for them, whether its working from home or adopting flexitime. I believe the only solution in the long run as cities grow is how people behave, not building more roads. But working from home (or a hub) comes with its own challenges.
I was involved in interviewing people who drive to work because they either have to do things on the way like drop off kids, or because there isn’t suitable public transport. I asked them how they felt when they were driving on the motorway and traffic slowed down. Every person said that within 5-10 minutes they were feeling stressed. Unprompted each of them used the word anxious or a derivative of it.
Each person said that when traffic ground to a halt they got out their mobiles, knowing it was illegal and did a number of things, some rang other people, like you did, to find out what was going on, some went on social media, either to find out what was going on or for something to do. One was a financial controller and ‘time being money’ got out his spreadsheets.
Me, I’m about 20 minutes from work without traffic. If I leave later than 7AM it takes me 45 minutes plus to drive to the office. Bus would take me over an hour and I am lucky to have a free car park. I enjoy podcasts and use my time, but in a past life when I started a branch of a company from home and then had to move to an office as we grew, which involved commuting an hour and a half each way, the novelty wore off and after about 9 months I regretfully resigned.
Luigi, thanks for the great post.
I can totally relate to the people who immediately jumped to anxiety or something akin to it when they hit traffic. I enjoy driving but traffic just kills all of the joy that it brings and it’s much easier to have your mind wander and stress when you’re stuck behind other metal cars.
This is a big reason I chose living in rural America. I made big city wages with an 8 minute commute. Also much lower housing costs and easy access to outdoor recreation. Not to mention never having to work in a cubicle but everyone having private offices. I’ll never understand the appeal of metropolitan areas.
Great article. I take public transportation into work, and is 90 minutes in the morning and a little less than 2 hours at night. This seems to be the average where I live in DC, with some trading a shorter commute for very expensive housing. I could drive and cut my commute in half, but my out of pocket costs would be around $60 a day (tolls/parking/gas) where my cost now are free as my employer pays for public transportation.
I cherish my one day of telework and pray the last 9 years before retirement goes fast!