The Costs of Commuting (and 8 Ways to Take Your Time Back)

If you have a job, you’re probably well versed in the costs of commuting. Commuting became a subject of study back in 1980 when the U.S. Census began to track it. In that time, the average commute for Americans was 21.7 minutes. Now it’s 25.5 minutes, with 139 million workers commuting every year. Multiply that out and the average commute sentences you to nine full days out of your year behind the wheel of a car. For mega-commuters, those who travel at least 50 miles or 90 minutes (one way), they spend a month in transit!

But time isn't the only sacrifice you're making. In this post, we’ll examine other costs, along with how you can take back your commute time and find ways to use it productively.

Commuting costs you more than just hours.

When you’re calculating the costs of your commute, you should factor in more than lost hours and gas money. (Or, if you use public transit, the cost of the ticket). Time and travel costs are two key considerations when you commute to work, but they shouldn’t be your only concerns. And for mega-commuters, the costs are even steeper.

1. Time

Time is the first cost most commuters think of it. Time spent in traffic or waiting for a bus or train. It’s easy to measure and to see how much time a commute costs us. It’s also one factor we have little to no control over. One way to possibly trim off precious minutes from your commute is to change your departure times. By taking off earlier or later – and depending on where you are, it might have to be extremely early or late – you could find time when there’s less traffic. If that’s not feasible, another possibility is to buy a pass so you can use the HOV lane.

2. Travel costs

They add up quick. One way to track those is to keep a little notepad in your car, or use an app. Whenever you fill up, note down the cost and how many miles you traveled. Every month, you can see how much you pay to travel. You’ll also want to figure what the daily wear and tear costs you in car repairs. If you use public transit, it’s the cost of a ticket or a monthly/annual pass.

3. Lost opportunities

If you weren’t commuting, what could you be accomplishing instead? There’s time with family, personal hobbies, catching up on Netflix. Alternatively, you could put in additional hours at the office. According to Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post, with the collective lost hours from all commuters in a single year, you could have “built nearly 300 Wikipedias, or built the Great Pyramid of Giza 26 times.” 

Take back time you've lost to commuting.

Time spent commuting doesn’t have to count as a net loss to your day. Here are seven ways to put that time to good use.

1. Listen to audiobooks or podcasts.

Whatever you’re interested in, odds are there’s a podcast about it. And most libraries have a wide selection of audiobooks to choose from. You don’t even have to set foot inside a library. Many books are available for digital download using apps like Overdrive. 

2. Set or review daily goals.

Your commute is the perfect time to either prepare for your workday or to review how well you did. If you’re headed in to work, run through your day. Review your tasks, prioritize them, and set goals you can use to grade yourself at the end of the day. On the way home, review those goals and priorities. How well did you do? Do you have any milestones to celebrate? What could you have done better?

3. Learn a new language.

It’s never too late to master another language. Sharpening your mind and increasing your personal versatility are just a few of the benefits of studying a different language. Perhaps you could target a new language as you prepare for an international trip.

4. Practice speeches or presentations.

This is a challenge if you’re driving. You can’t really review your notes or presentation slides—really, don’t do it—but you can run through your speech in your head. Anticipate any questions and compose responses. If you have a phone with a digital assistant, use it to take hands-free notes you can review later.

5. Make any overdue phone calls.

During a commute is an ideal time to call family members or clients you couldn’t reach during the regular workday. Of course, if you’re on the road, always prioritize auto safety by keeping the calls hands-free or on speakerphone. And always inform those you call that you’re driving, that you don’t have access to notes or schedules, and that you could abruptly lose signal if you go through a tunnel.

6. Take business calls.

Again, if you’re behind the wheel, keep it hands-free or on your speakerphone. That said, your car can become an extension of your office with the right kind of business phone system. In the old days, you had to hand out your personal number to do that. But who wants to surrender their privacy like that? With a phone system like Jive’s, there’s an app for that. You can set up your cell phone to receive calls to your business number. That way, you can also make calls, and the caller ID will display your business number instead of your private one.

7. Catch up on your voicemails.

Most Americans avoid voicemails—both leaving them and listening to them. But it’s still a good idea to clean out your box once or twice a week. With a tool like the Jive Mobile app, you can access your business voicemail in your car. But if you’re driving, please limit reviews of your voicemail for when you’re stuck in standstill traffic. You don’t want to be dialing numbers, entering PINs, and selecting menu options while going 65-80 mph.

8. Try public transit or carpooling.

Sometimes seeking out other alternatives to driving can add more time to your commute. But the payoff is that it frees you to fill your time more productively. It can also be a nice break away from the stress of driving. Most metropolitan areas offer transit options, and many of those options include free Wi-Fi for passengers.

Commuting time doesn’t have to be lost time!

We sacrifice too much to our commutes already. Don’t let your time become another of the costs of commuting. And don’t limit yourself to only these seven suggestions. Never stop looking for ways to reclaim your commute time so you can stay productive and happy.