Costly Commuting

It’s a fine, old truck. It’s generic white, has a good cap on the back, only has a few dings and dents, and could use a few thousand dollars if I decided to make it like new again. That’s not happening. It isn’t the vehicle I would choose if I had to shop for a replacement, but when my Dad offered me his truck I said yes. Of course. It’s a fine, old truck, and I’m very aware of what it costs to use it. Filling it up today made me wonder about how much it costs people to get to work, not just the money, but the time, too. Time to break out the spreadsheet.

I am a fan of walking and bicycling. If you have any doubts, read my books (Just Keep Pedaling and Walking Thinking Drinking Across Scotland). My house, the only place I’ve ever truly felt at home, isn’t close to anything – on purpose. When I moved to the southern tip of Whidbey Island I thought I’d be retired; so, being remote was not an issue. So much for retirement. The only business within walking distance is a much-improved convenience store 1.6 miles from my house. (They’ve expanded into offering food, microbrews, and music.) The nearest strip malls are about 6 miles away. The distance isn’t bad for bicycling but the routes are hilly. The elevation gain is about 500 feet. Doable, but not if I want to be presentable.

Most of my local business trips are at least twenty mile round trips. The truck gets about 16 miles per gallon; so, take the price of gas, multiply by 1.25 and get the direct cost of my commute – about $3.50 to $4.00. For me, that’s noticeable and acceptable, but a couple of years ago it wasn’t.

That flashback hit as I was filling the 26 gallon tank today. What about the people making minimum wage?

People making minimum wage frequently have few choices. They use the transportation they have to get to the job they can get. More fuel efficient vehicles are great, if you can afford them. If, however, you’re stuck with what you’ve got, you may not be getting great mileage. Getting a better job is great, which is something almost every worker is working on. Of course, if they could get a better job they wouldn’t be making minimum wage. For those who are working for minimum wage, commutes tend to be long because good jobs centers tend to raise housing costs. Affordable housing means a longer drive, possibly from where there isn’t mass transit.

A car or truck that gets 18 miles per gallon using gas that costs $2.75 per gallon costs about $0.15 in gas per mile to drive. That doesn’t sound so bad, but for a typical American commute of 30 miles that’s $4.58 each way. For someone making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that’s 1.26 hours of work just to pay to get to work. With taxes it gets worse. Dive into taxes and see that the IRS accepts the total mileage cost is more like $0.54 per mile, 3.6 times higher. That means working 4.5 hours to pay for getting to a job that hopefully is much more than an 8 hour shift.

Fortunately, the shift to a $15 per hour minimum wage is making progress. Even in places that have established it, they’re phasing it in, but it is progress. The time cost for commuting to a Seattle minimum wage job is approximately half the time cost of commuting to a federal minimum wage job. Of course, one reason Seattle raised the minimum wage is because Seattle is so expensive to live in that many of the people working essential services can’t live in Seattle, or even King County.

A friend and I had a conversation the other evening about the pace of life. We both have memories of having the time to read the paper either before or after work. Home time was chore time, but most evenings that was followed by reading a book, watching tv, or calling friends. It isn’t just a fantasy or a delusion; those times did exist. What happened?

There’s no one cause to our loss of time. But, filling my truck’s gas tank made me think about where my time and money go, and where my friends’ time and money go. People who aren’t making enough have any extra money probably also have less extra time. Losing an extra hour or two or more just to keep a job means less life in their life.

Whidbey’s economy relies on tourists. I work from the tourist town of Langley, sitting in coffeeshops or the library at least a few days per week. It’s good to get out of the house. Stay home too long and start to lose social skills. Pardon me while I sniffle and scratch. It’s also good to work in public for networking, collaborating, and the sociological exercise called people watching. The locals taking care of the tourists usually aren’t making much money. I’m impressed with how relaxed some of them are considering what I know about their situation (homelessness is probably more prevalent than the government and non-profits know.) The tourists are the ones who’ve found the good jobs, make enough to pay for vacations – and are frequently incredibly stressed. I can hear it in the way they order their drinks. Two or three days is not enough to unwind months of corporate crises. I can see it in the way some collapse into library chairs.

Today was a rare day. I got ahead of a few items, partly from some auspicious synchronicity. For an hour or two I sat, actually sat with a cup of tea and watched a storm go by. It’s a luxury.

What about everyone else? When getting the right job is tough means high emotional and physical costs; when taking whatever job you can get means using all your time and money to work the job – it’s no wonder to me that people are stressed, want a change; and yet, can’t see an appealing alternative. Even though the odds of winning the lottery are low, the odds of the appealing alternatives seem equally low.

Unless a client arranges a meeting, I’ll work from home for the next couple of days. I’ll save time and money. The meals will be better, too. Then, inevitably, I’ll jump in the truck, drive to some public workspace, arrive more presentable than I would by walking or bicycling, and have to work an extra hour to pay for the opportunity. I’m glad I have that option and wonder what will change to make that available to the baristas and librarians who tend those spaces.

About Tom Trimbath

consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: and at my amazon author page:
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