The high toll of commuting to work

Commuting is not only hard on the wallet but on the environment and family life. Plus it can be a big waste of time. Photo: From Transfuture.net

Montgomery Village, Md., August 2, 2011 ­– From the time I was 16 years old in 1960, I have either worked or studied or both, until I retired at 60 in 2005. For a significant part of those years I commuted to work in Washington, DC.

Not until the last few years have I thought about why I decided to commute, driving up to 62 miles daily in some of the most congested traffic in the nation.

The commute would take anywhere from one to three hours a day. Public transit, mainly the Metro subway, was not much better as it took between two to three hours a day, in addition to the time to get to the station and return home from the station. There was also the extra expense of parking at the Metro station. So what does that actually mean?

Well, picture this: from just 1980 to 2005 (when I was at the Environmental Protection Agency) my best commute time would have totaled about a year of my life. More realistically, at least one day out of three, traffic was worse than that, so commuting could take up twice as long.

Here, I have to confess that I got management to let me work at home two days a week for most of my last five years, so that deducted as much as 87 days. By making the choice to commute long distance to work, I estimate that I used up 404 days of my life commuting.

While I didn’t drive all these days but carpooled, most, if not all, of that time was wasted.

Putting a price to the labor that I could have done in that time is not what matters to me. What does matter is the time I could have spent with my family or doing the things that I enjoy. When not driving in the car pool, I would try to get some sleep, which wasn’t always possible. So for all practical purposes, the 404 days were wasted days.

A comment made by one of my car pool mates really brings home the point: he speculated that we probably spent more time together during the week than we spent with our spouses and families.

One of the things that I noticed as a passenger was the behavior of other commuters. Since we followed a routine, I would usually see many of the same cars and same people on the road day after day.

Commuting around DC?

Several times during those years I tried to do some statistical analysis of the number of car pools in my commuting universe. My informal study found only 1 in every 33 cars on the road carried more than just the driver.

Some of these people driving alone to work were my colleagues. When I would press them about joining our car pool or just asked them why they braved the traffic every day by themselves, they almost always responded that they needed the flexibility of driving alone. They mentioned times when they had to stay for management meetings or going up “to the Hill” on an issue.

I never told them that this was a rationalization since I was doing the same work they were, and it was an unwritten policy not to have meetings that would run past 4 pm as part of the core hours within Flexitime. This was the earliest that you could leave for the day if you had started work at 6:30 am.

As for being called to the Hill, that could be easily accommodated by driving alone on those occasions. I was only called once to the Hill as a National Technical Expert with the federal government (to respond to a report to Congress that I had written about the underground injection of hazardous wastes), and the Hill staffers were eager to take my testimony at a convenient time. They always found out what our schedules were and would normally not call a meeting too early or too late.

A more candid colleague actually told me that he didn’t enjoy the inane conversation of others in a car pool, preferring to listen to his classical music in peace.

If only 20% of the people that drove alone had formed or joined a car pool, our commuting would have been nearer the optimum time of one hour a day. A car pool would also have other advantages such as savings in gas and a decrease in air pollution.

During the decade of the 80s, a study speculated that if only 20% of the commuters would join a car pool with just one other person (two per car), we would reduce to half the amount of oil imported. If these carpools had four people or more, we would not have to import any oil.

Of course, that was the period when we imported much less oil than today. The idea was that conservation could be the easiest way to cut our dependence on foreign oil.

While reflecting upon my commuting life was a lot of fun for me, the idea that by choice I wasted over a year of my life sitting in a car, surrounded by other cars on the highways in or around Washington, DC, makes me realize that I could have made more reasonable choices. With hindsight I see there are a few things that I should have done to improve my quality of life:

1. Move to a place nearer our work, a place close enough that I could walk to work every day. If I were close enough to walk home for lunch, I also would have saved at least half of the money I spent on lunch in places near work.

2. If the above were not practical, then buy or rent a place within walking distance to a subway station on the same route as my office.

3. If I found the attraction of suburbia (or exurbia) too strong, I should have waited until I was able to telecommute/work from home at least two days a week before buying in suburbia.

Of course, man does not live by commuting alone. The priorities that we have are different and many people may not see the wasted time in commuting as a bad thing.The way I view it now, commuting was being able to arrive at my suburban house in a peaceful neighborhood, but only after hours in traffic. Being able to look at my lawn (that I had to mow until I got rid of it). Being able to live in my own house (with all that maintenance to do on weekends). I didn’t always think this way, so I suspect others will disagree.

My wife and I talk about this when we hear about an accident on I 270 or I 95 and wonder why we decided to live so far from our jobs.

Now retired, we are very happy where we live. One of the main reasons for that happiness is that we don’t have to commute.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, a pacifist. You can find his articles, ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket, in 21st Century Pacifist at The Washington Times Communities.


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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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