10.8 million Americans travel more than an hour each way to work. And 600,000 endure ‘megacommutes’ of at least 90 minutes and 50 miles each way, according to the Census Bureau. This was not what was supposed to happen.1
You know it, and I know it: The work commute is a look in the mirror that we try to avoid. Yet, we end up listening to podcasts, sports radio, or digital tunes during the commute and rationalize that it is not that bad, attempting to justify our housing location choice. Service members and government Civilian employees know all too well the problems with military installation housing. Since living very near the gates is usually not a desirable option either, we seek that perfect home community that generates commute times well-above the 27.9 minute one-way national average.2 Our kids are in “great” schools, and there are lots of restaurants, shopping, and nighttime entertainment near home.
Outside of the D.C. area, most service members and Civilians working on military installations do not have the option of utilizing public transportation. Thus, this note focuses upon an individual’s automobile commute, given that eighty-six percent of Americans drive to work.3 Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, presents just one example of installation commuting. Based on my discussions with some who have worked there,4 a large number of Fort Hood personnel choose to live around Georgetown, Texas, which is at best forty-one miles south of Fort Hood. Many others choose to live about twenty-seven miles further south in Austin, Texas, which provides all the great things for which they are looking, except a simple commute.
Approaching this conservatively, perhaps your average work day looks something like this:
0500 – Awake and run or go to the gym (good luck doing this in an hour)
0600 – Shower, dress, and grab your coffee and hopefully breakfast
0700 – Commute to work
0745 – Arrive at work
1700 – Commute home
1745 – Arrive at home, help kids with homework, prepare, & eat dinner
1945 – Take care of household business (such as paying bills, cleaning, and kids’ baths)
2100 – Family, TV, and personal enrichment time
2230 – Go to bed for, at most, 6.5 hours of sleep (do you go to sleep immediately?)
Adjust the timetable above a few minutes either way. Even with a favorable adjustment, where is your time for the kids’ ballgames or other activities, perhaps a local restaurant dinner, or your hobby? A quick analysis of the above and other data demonstrates that the commute monster is absconding with your money, time, relationships, and health.
1. Commuting Steals Your Money. Assuming you are looking for extra money to put in your retirement account or savings, assessing your commuting costs is likely a good place to find it. Look at the difference between just a fifteen and thirty mile one-way commute, as seen in the example given in Table 1 (I’m assuming there that a commuter can complete the drive averaging one mile per minute, and I use some rounding off in the numbers).
30 minute/30 mile Commute each way
Effective Annual Work Hours5
Effective Annual Salary
Effective Hourly Rate
1 hour X 220 commute days per year
2,300 including commute
Commute Cost @ $.545 mile6 X 60 miles = $7,194
2,300 including commute
15 minute/15 mile Commute each way
Effective Annual Work Hours
Effective Annual Salary
Effective Hourly Rate
+ .5 hour X 220 commute days per year
2,190 including commute
Commute Cost @ $.545 mile X 30 miles = $16.35 X 220 = $3,597
2,190 including commute
$83,480 -$3,597 = $79,883
The table demonstrates that $3,597 of after-tax money can be saved from just a fifteen minute/fifteen mile commute reduction.
Implementing these commuting savings would be quite a nice addition to your estate plan. Assuming zero inflation or increase of any kind for the commuting expenses, if you contributed $3,597 annually for twenty years to a Roth individual retirement account (Roth IRA) invested in an index fund achieving a modest four percent annual return, you would accumulate $111,396.7 If, unlike me, you think the IRS mileage rate is too high upon which to base your savings, because you own a hybrid or other high-efficiency automobile, cut the numbers in half. That still results in $1,799 savings per year, which if invested the same way would accumulate $55,714 in twenty years. Moreover, your Roth IRA earnings are generally not taxable if withdrawal or distribution occurs after you reach age fifty-nine and a half.8
2. Commuting Steals Your Time. How much more relaxed would you be with an extra hour per day by decreasing your commute from forty-five to fifteen minutes each way?9 That is 220 hours a year assuming 260 work days a year reduced by forty total personal leave and holidays a year. You could get another half-hour of sleep plus thirty more minutes talking to your spouse or reading a book. Even if your commute-time reduction is by just thirty minutes total per work day, you would save yourself 110 hours per year—almost three work weeks. But you had to live close to all the action and conveniences that you do not have time to attend more than about once a week, if then.
3. Long Commutes Jeopardize Your Health. As commuting is a time vacuum, you necessarily have less available opportunity for daily exercise. So, if you make time for your exercise, as you should, you naturally have less time for something else—such as sleep or personal hobbies. Moreover, research indicates that “the longer the commute, the higher the levels of one’s obesity, cholesterol, pain, fatigue and anxiety.”10 Another research study further reveals that “longer commutes appeared to have a negative impact on mental health too, with longer-commuting workers 33 percent more likely to suffer from depression, 37 percent more likely to have financial worries and 12 percent more likely to report multiple aspects of work-related stress.”11
4. Internal Solutions. The first one is easy. Live closer to work. You drive there five days a week. You can drive a bit further to the entertainment that you enjoy once or twice a week, and that drive will not likely be during rush hour. You can find another school system that works for your family. If not, you will have more time to work with your children on their studies, or the money saved by living closer could be applied toward a private school or tutor. Another solution would be to live against the flow of rush-hour traffic. Even if that location is just as far, you could save valuable minutes on each end of your commute and some gasoline expense.
5. External Solutions. Three potential ways to reduce your commuting costs or time as a government civilian employee include Alternative Work Schedules (AWS), telecommuting, and the Public Transportation Subsidy Program (PTSP)12 or Federal Workforce Transportation Executive Order 13150 (EO 13150).13
Alternate work schedules in the federal government can take many forms such as a flexible work schedule (FWS) or a compressed work scheduled (CWS). A FWS is authorized under 5 U.S.C. § 6122 and is one where the employee works core hours and has flexible hours for arrival and departure. While a FWS does not reduce your mileage each day, it certainly can serve to take your commute out of the rush hour, saving you valuable time and some amount of gasoline consumed in idle traffic.
A CWS authorized under 5 U.S.C. § 6127 is one where the employee works eighty hours bi-weekly over less than ten days such as nine hours for eight days and eight hours for one day (5/4/9) or ten-hour days for four days per week (4/10s).14 Thus, you could reduce your commuting by twenty-six to fifty-two days per year, if your agency so allows.
Most of us have certainly become familiar with telework or telecommuting, and that option may or may not be available. If it is, good for you. However, the odds are that, for most of us, any telework beyond a day here or there is not an option. The Office of Personnel Management reported last year that while forty-two percent of federal employees are eligible to telework, only twenty-two percent of all employees have, and most of that is situational or sporadic days.15 Moreover, that number is remarkably less for the Navy, Army, and Air Force at just twenty percent, ten percent, and five percent of employees, respectively.16
The Public Transportation Subsidy Program and Executive Order 13150 provide untaxed transportation subsidies for federal employees in agencies that have implemented the program. Qualified vanpools are part of those authorizations. There are several requirements to receive and maintain vanpool subsides, but in general, an eligible employee participating in a qualified vanpool can receive up to $255 per month in benefits.17 Assuming you have a sufficient number of vanpool riders, you may be able to eliminate a substantial part of your commuting expenses. Of course, there is a tradeoff in your travel independence and you will likely spend more time commuting because of coordination, meeting, pickup, and dropping off riders.
The data makes clear that one should do everything within reason to reduce the length and time of workplace commuting. If the money savings and potential health benefits do not convince you, remember that your time is finite—you cannot create more time. Your family, wallet, health, and inner-self will thank you. TAL
Kyle C. Barrentine is the General Attorney at Anniston Army Depot, in Anniston, Alabama
1. Chris Taylor, Your Commute is Costing You More than You Realize, Reuters (May 27, 2014), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-commute-costs/your-commute-is-costing-you-more-than-you-realize-idUSKBN0E721M20140527.
2. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/14/the-lonely-american-commute/?utm_term=.3847bb589543. One verified study for the Hampton Roads, Virginia area found that, among 11,000 survey respondents, the average one-way commute was 37.9 minutes; https://pilotonline.com/news/military/article_d86ef9f7-b131-5609-8fbb-771844f45736.html.
4. I acknowledge this Fort Hood information is not based on a scientific survey, but it is not unrealistic. I presently live about twenty-three miles from where I work, and my commute is about thirty minutes one-way against the flow of traffic. In any event, do some of your own analysis and apply the miles and minutes to your commute.
5. Federal civilian employee pay is actually based upon 2,087 work hours per year. https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/pay-administration/fact-sheets/computing-hourly-rates-of-pay-using-the-2087-hour-divisor (last visited Apr. 11, 2018).
6. The 2018 IRS business mileage deduction rate is $.545, and it is based on an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. IRS, Standard Mileage Rates for 2018 up from Rates for 2017, https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/standard-mileage-rates-for-2018-up-from-rates-for-2017 (Dec. 14, 2017).
7. I used an online savings calculator to compute this total based upon a zero starting amount with annual contributions compounded annually. If you changed the variable to being compounded monthly, the total after twenty years would equal $112,337. See https://www.dinkytown.net/java/CompoundSavings.html.
8. See The Five Year Rule for Roth IRA Withdrawals, https://www.rothira.com/blog/the-five-year-rule-with-roth-ira-withdrawals (last visited Apr. 1, 2018) (“[T]o withdraw your earnings from a Roth IRA tax and penalty free, not only must you be over 59½ years-old, but your initial contributions must also have been made to your Roth IRA five years before the date when you start withdrawing funds.”).
10. Taylor, supra note 1 (based on a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey).
11. Rebecca Smith, Here’s the Impact Long Commutes Have on Your Health and Productivity, Business Insider (May 22, 2017), http://www.businessinsider.com/long-commutes-have-an-impact-on-health-and-productivity-2017-5 (based on a study conducted in the United Kingdom by VitalityHealth, the University of Cambridge, RAND Europe and Mercer).
12. 5 U.S.C. § 7905.
13. President Clinton executed Executive Order 13150 on April 21, 2000.