O’Connor: Drivers with long commutes pay the toll

Brian J. O'Connor

They say you need real drive to succeed in your chosen career, but these days you just need to drive. And according to a new study, that commute is getting longer and longer.

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of jobs within the typical commuting distance of major metropolitan areas dropped by 7 percent, according to a Brookings Institution analysis based on Census Bureau data. Metro Detroit was particularly hard-hit, with a 26.5 percent drop in jobs with decent commutes.

You’d think this has big implications for low-wage workers and people who can’t afford to drive from the city out to the beckoning ex-urbs, but it’s actually suburban residents who are hit the worst. The number of jobs located a typical commute away for city residents dropped by 3 percent, but they declined by 7 percent for suburbanites.

So, yeah, the folks in West Deerfield Acres Heights Estates Molehills may have a Bed, Bath & Beyond at the local strip mall, but they also face the daily indignity of enduring Buffoon Bob and the Mornin’ Zoo Crew just to get the radio traffic updates. Or else they suffer that most inhumane of all transportation horrors: a public radio pledge drive.

Call for your hemp tote-bag!

When a new job offer comes calling, the natural tendency is to think in terms of how much time is going to be taken up by the schlepp to the office, but few of us really consider the cost. Now that gas prices are (temporarily) lower, the expense may seem like less of an issue, but when gas eventually climbs back to $4 a gallon, it’ll feel like a crisis.

I’m not kidding. Think about what happens when consumers have to shell out an extra $20 a month at the pump. Walmart Inc. misses its earnings, convenience store sales drop, late payments on credit cards rise, consumers hunker down on their wallets and economists predict a financial Armageddon. And consider this: That Adam Sandler movie that stunk up screens in October? Well, when it opened gas prices averaged $3.12 per gallon of regular, down 7 percent from the same week a year before. I won’t argue that correlation is causation, but you are free to draw your own conclusions.

So gas prices matter, as do all the other costs of an extended commute, such as higher insurance rates, increased maintenance costs, and the wear and tear on your mind and body that comes from interacting with your fellow freeway drivers, all of whom are going either too fast or waaay too slow. More than one study has found that the more you drive beyond 10 miles each way to work, the more you are likely to experience higher stress, cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity, anxiety and depression.

Rump rash: The silent killer

Then there’s the financial stress. If we use the IRS mileage reimbursement figure of 57.5 cents per mile, the cost of each mile of daily commuting comes to $287.50 a year, after tax. So in Oxnard, Calif., where the average commute is 5.3 miles, the commute chews up about $2,300 of your annual pre-tax salary. But here in Detroit, where the average commute is 10.4 miles, it’s the equivalent of a $4,600 pay cut.

If an extra five miles each way costs you a couple of thousand dollars more, imagine the cost if you move to a location where you’d be classified as one of the country’s 3.5 million “extreme commuters” who drive 90 minutes or more each way to work. If you’ve got a family, the total costs of childcare and a lengthy commute are going to make it a better financial deal to stick near home and rattle the tip jar at your local Starbucks.

One guy who’s beaten the commuter trap is my old New York running-buddy, The Big Man From Brooklyn. He moved closer to work, bought a used bike at a garage sale, and pedals his way to the office. The exercise keeps him fit and counteracts any stress from the job. In bad weather, he carpools, and enjoys the closer friendship with his co-workers. Best of all, the cost is practically nil.

But, The Big Man confides, there’s still one huge downside.

“No matter what I do with my commute,” he says, “I still end up at work.”

Brian O’Connor is author of the award-winning book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”


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