As many of you know, I live in Southern California; cars are king here. Most of us who live in Los Angeles can’t even spell “public transportation.”
That’s why it was big news when I found out my employer was moving 21 miles down the road, effective last December. That move more than doubled my previously care-free 17-mile commute and I wasn’t too happy about that.
The public transportation system here is so fragmented and disjointed it is essentially useless for most of us Angelenos.
Los Angeles is a big city; it spans a distance of 44 miles at its longest point. Unfortunately our only subway line is all of 17 miles long and goes absolutely nowhere useful, unless you plan on making a day of it at Universal Studios theme park. Of course, even then I’d have to drive 35 minutes to catch the Red Line and keep my fingers crossed that there’s an available parking space at the station. Well, that and pray “Jurassic Park: The Ride” is not closed for maintenance. Otherwise, what would be the point, right?
A family member from Barcelona, Spain, had dropped in to Los Angeles one day last September. She called us wanting to know what bus line she should take to get to our house.
“Bus? There’s no bus, Nona,” was the Honeybee’s matter-of-fact reply.
Of course, Nona really could have taken a bus to get here, but she made it perfectly clear that she was only in town for about eight hours – coincidentally about the same amount of time it takes to travel via the bus system from Hollywood to my house.
I reluctantly suggested to Nona it would probably be better if she visited Universal Studios instead.
“Actually, that was my first choice,” she said, “but the Jurassic Park ride is closed for maintenance.”But I digress.
The point I was trying to make, though, is this: after my employer moved, I either had to accept my longer commute by car or move closer to work.
I was fearing the longer commute and the impact it would have on my quality of life. My old commute was a relatively leisurely drive of just over 30 minutes and, best of all, it kept me off the freeways. My new commute was not only going to require a longer drive, but almost all of it was going to be on the crowded freeways of Southern California. How long and how stressful could only be known after a month or two of doing it.
I pledged to take some detailed data before making a preliminary evaluation on whether or not to dump my new longer commute in favor of: 1) a lower paying job closer to my home, or; 2) moving to a smaller home closer to my current job.
December came and I began my new drive, and after a couple weeks I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was the new drive pretty much a breeze, thanks largely to my utilization of paid toll lanes, it was only about ten minutes longer one-way than my original commute! As an added bonus, I was allowed to telecommute one day per week, reducing the number of days I actually drove to work.
So time-wise the impact was more than acceptable, but what about the financial impacts?
For two months I dutifully tracked the time it took me to get to work and back, as well as my gas mileage. Here is a summary of the results:
As you can see from my trusty Excel spreadsheet, I’ve dissected both my old and new commutes six ways to Sunday.
The New Bottom Line
Let’s start off by cutting right to the chase. At the bottom of the spreadsheet (in green) you can see that depending on the price of gasoline, my longer commute will be costing me somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200 extra per year. It also costs me a little over an hour more in my car each week — that’s about 50 hours per year.
To come up with the financial figure I included not only the cost of fuel and daily tolls, but also calculated the impact of my commute on simple maintenance activities like oil changes and tire replacement.
- The impact of the longer commute on my fuel consumption was offset by the fact that my fuel efficiency increased by over 20%, from 33 to 40 miles per gallon. This is attributable to the fact that my new commute is almost entirely on relatively non-congested freeways, with very little stop-and-go city driving. As a result, despite driving 124 extra miles, I only use about two extra gallons of gas per week. For the record I drive a 1997 Honda Civic with a manual transmission.
- The $16 I spend each week for express lane tolls result in better gas mileage and less wear-and-tear on my car. It is a near-certainty that these tolls pay for themselves in that regard — although I am unwilling to formally investigate this assertion. Sorry.
- The financial impact of my longer commute on oil changes and tires is negligible.
- As the price of gasoline rises, the “penalty” for my longer commute actually decreases. You can see this in the two cases I used, the first case with fuel at $3 per gallon and the second with fuel at $5 per gallon. This applies only to a certain point. At $10 per gallon, my new longer commute is “only” 69% more expensive. At $50 per gallon, my new longer commute would only be 45% more expensive. At $100 per gallon my new longer commute would cost only 40% more — assuming I could scrape up enough money to fill my tank.
- If I decided to move closer to my job, not only would I have to settle for a smaller house and a larger mortgage payment, I estimate my new property taxes would increase by roughly $7500 per year. That more than offsets the additional expenses of the longer commute.
Now Let’s Play What If…
So, would I take a $10,000 per year pay cut to trade my new 42-minute commute for a 10-minute commute? No. The reason is, thanks to the toll express lanes, I find my new commute to actually be more pleasant than my old drive. Not only is it a mere 9 extra minutes each way, on average, but 95% of my new drive is spent flying down the highway between 60 and 80 miles per hour.
So Just How Much IS A Good Commute Worth?
As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to determining the value of a commute, the ultimate forcing function is time — not money. After all, isn’t time more valuable than money? We can always use our time to make money, but we can never use money to buy more time.
The fact that I am currently shelling out an extra $1200 per year just to cover a longer, but more pleasant, commute doesn’t really bother me too much. But I guarantee you that I would gladly cut my salary by $10,000 per year – and probably as much as $25,000 per year — in exchange for an easy 10-minute ride if:
- My commute was in stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic for even 30 minutes per day each way, or
- My current commute was another 10 or 15 minutes longer, regardless of traffic congestion.
Lucky for me my new longer commute doesn’t adhere to either of those criteria.
And that’s why I’ve decided to just suck it up and drive.