Car Commuting Costs Marin Billions

Marin’s commuting workforce travels quite a distance for work, 11.5 miles each way on average, thanks in part to its relatively suburban character.  Although most would say such a commute isn’t terrible, commuting even that far is a massive financial loss to everyone involved, and Marin’s economy suffers for it.

Financial blogger Mr. Money Mustache recently penned a fantastic piece on the true cost of commuting (which I truly recommend) and found that an 18 mile commute, roughly from downtown San Rafael to Market Street, costs around $75,000 over the course of a decade and wastes roughly 1.3 working years of time.  He factors in the IRS cost of $0.51 per mile in car depreciation, gas, and the like and assumes that it could be reinvested at about 5% interest.  This is crazy, and that’s just for one person.

How much time and money is lost to commuting alone in Marin?  The average drive-alone Marinite travels 11.46 miles to work, the distance from Petaluma to Novato.  After taking into account a bit of tolling and parking, this average joe spends $3,800 and 24 working days on his commute each year.  If he valued his time as much as his employer, that lost time is worth another $6,500.  This works out to almost $50,000 in lost wealth and 7 wasted months over a decade.  As a county, we spend $565 million every year to commute alone, and every decade we lose an astounding $7.3 billion in wealth and $9.5 billion worth of time.

Hearing these numbers, you’re probably thinking of abandoning your place in Sleepy Hollow and finding someplace nice in Russian Hill, or you’re worried I’ll want to make Grant Avenue a satellite Financial District.  Don’t worry.  I’m not advocating emptying out Marin, or turning Novato into Oakland, but I want to point out the immense, direct costs of investing so heavily in car-centered infrastructure.  Each 1% of the commuting populace that drives alone rather than paying down a mortgage costs Marin’s economy $106.4 million every decade.

Infill development is one way out of this mess.  By bringing workers and jobs closer together, Marinites will be able to save time and money if they want to drive, to the tune of $255 per mile closer to work, and will be more likely to bike or walk to work.  These don’t need to be monstrous apartment buildings or affordable housing, but there are enough redundant parking garages and vacant lots to provide a healthy amount of space without damaging the fabric and culture of our towns.

The other way out is through improved transit investments.  Although travel by transit is often no faster, and sometimes slower, than driving, that time can be put to more productive use than simply driving through stop-and-go traffic on 101, and transit is almost always cheaper than driving.  Switching from driving to taking the wifi-equipped 101 bus to San Francisco, for example, can save a Novato commuter up to $11,000 per year in parking fees, tolls and vehicle wear-and-tear.

These are the discussions Marin should have about its future.  How can we boost alternative transportation?  How can we intelligently promote infill development?  These are also the discussions we should have with our families.  Personally I’d rather have $11,000 at the end of the year than the convenience of being totally flexible with when I can leave the office.

We often simply accept the commutes we’re given as foregone conclusions and don’t count the ways they hurt our wallets and our time; if we do reexamine our commute, it’s often with the time horizon of a month or a year.  It’s high time we started to look at things a little more broadly.


Commuting statistics used for the above information is from Change in Motion from December, 2008, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  Mode share and commuter numbers are the 2006 observed base.  If you would like to see my work, you can download the spreadsheet I made here.  If I made any particularly egregious mathematical errors, do let me know in the comments.