The Cost of Commuting: We Compare Driving, Public Transportation, Carpooling and More
What does the word “commute” mean to you?
Some of us regularly spend 40 minutes every day just getting back and forth between work. Others seem to become road warriors and spend three hours a day just getting to and from an office or job site. Meanwhile, others still may get to take a train or bus, and spend way less money but probably more time to reach their destination.
But with all this movement going on, what is the true cost of commuting?
The Cost of Commuting
So what does it cost to commute? The cost of commuting is primarily dependent upon the mode of transportation. Of course, it also depends on how far you have to go, but some things are far more cost-efficient than others. For example, driving yourself costs a lot more than taking public transportation (ideally). But, as you probably already know, what you pay for in dollars you trade for in time — if your city even has efficient, reliable and robust public transportation.
In America, because of the way cities and towns have been primarily planned and designed, cars are often the fastest form of transportation between any two points. If you were to take a bus, it would probably be cheaper, but only get you sort of close to your destination. Plus, it could take twice or three times as long. So, most often whatever is the cheapest way to commute is often the costliest in time.
Luckily, you can probably figure out a dollar-to-dollar significance of how much time it takes you to commute. What this means can be quickly explained by this:
- How much money do you make per hour?
- How long does it take to commute?
Multiply your hourly wage by the time you commute and you can figure out how many hours it takes you to work to cover the cost of your commute. This makes it super easy to compare different modes of transportation to figure out which is financially the best for you.
As an American, driving yourself is by far the No. 1 mode of commuting. In fact, according to Census data, over three-quarters of Americans drive to work. Of that group, almost 70% drove alone. That’s a super expensive way to commute: According to the IRS, the standard deductible cost of operating a vehicle was 65.5 cents per mile.
The standard deduction is a simple way of averaging out the cost of driving your car for the year, without including items like tolls and parking fees. So what does this average consist of? It could include gas, maintenance, repairs, registration, fees, taxes, insurance, any upgrades, your auto loan or lease, tolls, wear and tear and age of the car. The aspects which are most controllable include gas, maintenance, repairs, fees and the loan or lease payments.
To make it easier on yourself, you can also use a commute cost calculator, like this one.
A 2022 AAA Study sheds light on average driving costs, albeit specifically for driving a new car. It should be noted, however, that this is a national average, and it does not include time costs. Different costs will differ state-to-state and possibly even town-to-town.
Your Driving Costs
|Type of Cost Monthly
Taking Public Transportation
Most of us live somewhere where it is close to impossible to take public transportation to work. In fact, only 2.5% of Americans commute to work via public transportation, according to the most recent census data. But how much does it cost to commute this way?
Well, that depends on where you live primarily and your time cost. For example, let’s use RTD Denver’s fare cost. Their regional pass costs $200 per month.
As far as a national average, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides data for all different modes of public transportation such as Amtrak trains, buses, and commuter rail options. Unfortunately, they stopped providing data regarding bus fares more than 20 years ago in 2002.
According to Census data from 2019, most public transportation users commute via bus, with subway commutes coming in a bit behind buses. However, the data does not include average costs.
Your best bet to estimate costs is to look into public transportation costs, schedules and routes in your area.
Public transportation is very variable, sometimes unreliable and clunky, rather niche in America, and may or may not be able to provide more inexpensive options to the individual for commuting.
According to the Census data, about 8% of Americans carpool to work. But what does it cost to commute by carpool?
The answer will differ greatly depending on the car, the people you travel with, where you are going to, etc. But to get an idea, let’s say ideally you are still going to drive 20 minutes to work, maybe your coworkers live in the same neighborhood. Every day you all will switch who drives their own car.
To keep things simple, say that driving like this cuts your gas, maintenance, and toll cost in half. Every other cost will stay the same except you get the benefit of not having to pay attention driving a few days a week to work.
It should be noted right now that carpooling should, in theory, cut your costs to a third of the normal cost if you carpool with two other people a week. However, a lot of the cost of a car is pretty fixed day-to-day. So the only huge change you can often make day-to-day is how much gas you use, which means that it’s still a rather expensive way of commuting.
When it comes to commuting, only 0.5% of Americans use bicycles as their mode of transportation for commuting. Now, the usual problem with taking a bike to work is that it’s extremely unsafe to do so, and that there is not enough infrastructure to support it. And let’s face it: Cycling to work can make you very sweaty, so you’ll need to be able to freshen yourself up before working.
So for this example, we can still use the same distance bike ride to work along a relatively safe bike path. The time it would take, however, came out to about three hours total a day of biking. That’d be some great cardio, but probably a bit too much. Along with those costs, you have to factor in the cost of your bike. And bike maintenance is much, much cheaper than car maintenance and you do not need to pay for gas, insurance, tolls, or registration for the most part.
So let’s assume you’ve bought a relatively good bike costing $1,000. Let’s say that maintenance comes out to only $20 a month on average. With three hours a day of biking to work five times a week, it would cost about $175 a month to bike for the first year. That could become potentially cheaper per month as time goes on.
In 2011 dollars, Mister Money Mustache estimated the cost of biking was about $0.10 per mile. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $0.15 per mile now, which is still around 50 cents cheaper per mile just like he said in his article then. So by that math, at 40 miles of commuting a day, it costs $150 a month to bike to work. That’s an incredible amount of savings compared to driving a car alone, and a lot of extra exercise.
But, realistically, you’re probably not going to bike to work unless it’s a mile or two from your house, and/or takes around 15-20 minutes max. So in that ideal world the cost of commuting drops dramatically to $7.50 a month assuming $0.15 per mile of cost, four miles of biking a day and far less potential for physical ailments down the road as a little bonus.
The holy grail of commuting is walking. Why? Because it feels essentially free. It costs mostly your time. If you want to find a way to measure the cost of commuting by walking beside the time it costs, you can take into account the cost of your shoes and what you eat. But that starts wandering out of the territory of what is often taken into account for the cost of commuting.
If we consider the costs it takes to drive a car vs. the costs of walking, pretty much every cost falls off except for time and insurance. But are you going to take health insurance into account for your walk commute? That doesn’t seem right.
Do you need to register your shoes to walk to work, or pay a toll? No, hopefully not. So, if we compare the cost of walking to a car, it’s almost free.
And more people do it than you think: Approximately 2% of Americans walk to work each day, according to the US Census. A decently fast walker can probably walk a mile in around 20 minutes. So, it does limit the range of where you can work to only a few miles. But what you lose in working in a different city than you live in, you gain with the calmest and most inexpensive way to commute there may ever be besides instant teleportation.
Dennis Lynch is a civil engineer turned freelance writer with a passion for personal finance. While young, he acts as the spearhead of personal finance to just about everyone in his life, passing on his knowledge from the perspective of financial independence. You can find Dennis over at colossicus.com between his freelance ventures.