Seattle Transit Blog

An Appeal to Megacommuters

Average commute times, WNYC map.

There was an excellent piece in the Slog on Monday, based on both NYU work and a US Census graphic, showing that the Seattle area both ranks 10th in longest commutes, and that we have the 3rd fastest growth for long commutes.  The census piece introduced me to the term megacommuter, someone that commutes over 90 minutes and 50 miles each way.  One out of every 122 full time workers in the US is a megacommuter, and 10.8 million in the US commute more than an hour each way.  With so many megacommuters out there, I’ve decided to address them directly.

Dear Megacommuter,

I don’t know your situation.  I can think of at least a few tragic life situations that would keep me commuting with over 20% of my waking, non-working life(1).  But if you’re similar to a friend of mine that commuted this far just to have a large home, I’d like to make sure you have really thought through your choice.

Let’s take a look at the money you’re spending on this commute.  Looking at only tangible vehicle costs, ignoring softer numbers like the increased number of accidents you’ll be in, the cost of your reduced health from increased hours of sitting, etc., you’ll spend around $220,000 over the length of a 30 year mortgage by driving 50 miles each way(2).

Now let’s look at these 15+ hours a week you’re spending commuting.  If you plowed just half of those back into work by living close by, and made the median income in Seattle of $61,000, over those same 30 years you’d make an extra $229,000 after taking a third out for taxes and assuming no bonus for overtime or promotion for all of your dedication(3).  But rather than working those hours you could spend time with your family, start a hobby, or go to school.  Or you could take 293 extra weeks of vacation(4).

I won’t even try to persuade you with greenhouse gas numbers, or try to convince you that owning a home in the far suburbs helps destroy farms and forests and that everything from the roads that bring you home to  your water treatment to the power lines that serve your home have a much larger impact than they would near a city.  You either aren’t interested in these arguments, or they come second to other factors in your life.

If knowing all of this doesn’t change anything, you still want your large house at any cost, that’s fine.  This isn’t a “wrong” choice, and you’re welcome to it.  But if you’d consider another way, might I propose a new strategy?  Consider moving as close to your work as you can afford, even if it means living in a smaller home for a while.  Use the money you save in your commute to pay off your mortgage faster, build up equity in your home, and trade up to a larger home in a few years.  As a bonus, if you use that $220,000 you’d waste commuting over the 30 years on home, you’ll convert it from an expense to an investment and much of it will be available when you retire.

Thanks for listening,


(1) 40 hour work week, 8*7=56 hours of sleep a week, leaves 72 hours a week.  A 90 minute commute each way eats up 15 of these hours.  Note 72 hours doesn’t represent total free time – I didn’t count eating, brushing teeth, shopping, etc.

(2) 26,000 miles/yr /30 mpg car * $4 gal = $3,467 in fuel a year.  Assuming a lifespan of 200k miles you’d go through a $20k new car every 7.7 years ($2,600 a year).  Estimating $600 in insurance and $700 in maintenance a year (probably low for this many miles).  Total = $7,370 per year * 30 years = $221,000.

(3) $61,000 / 52 weeks / 40 hrs = $29.33/hr.  Time wasted commuting = 15 hrs/wk * 52 weeks/yr * 30 years = 23,400 hours wasted.  Using half of that: 11,700 hrs * $29.33/hr = $343,000.  Reduce that by a third and you get $229,000.

(4) Assuming your work is somewhat flexible, allowing you to work overtime in exchange for time off.  That’s 23,400 hours of comp time you’d rack up over 30 years, and you only need 40 for each week off.  I’ll cut that in half as well to adjust for your new commute.  That said, I’m guessing you won’t be able to take them all at once.