Sunday, November 4, 2012

Commuting? Have you done the math?

On my first job interview, over four years ago, I was asked whether I would relocate if I was hired. Back then, I still lived in the Campine region with my parents, while the Ferranti Computer Systems headquarters are in Antwerp. I thought about it for a few seconds and told the interviewer that I didn't plan on moving out of my parents' place in the first few years. Besides, the distance isn't that great; it's only 60km (=37 miles) of highway, how bad could it be? Apparently that reply was good enough since I was given the job a few days later.
Well, that commute grew old rather quickly though. Turns out that those 60km of highway are one of the most saturated pieces of asphalt in Belgium, with up to 20 to 30km (12 to 18 miles) of systematic traffic jams every damn single day.

And when you have to take the car to work, the options you have to spend that time useful are rather limited; the only things I could think of at the time were listening to podcasts and reflecting on the things of life. The latter made me hate my situation even more, so that wasn't an optimal pastime.

I actually never had the courage to calculate how much time I wasted in traffic those three years. Today, I'm in a far more comfortable situation, so plucking up courage wasn't that hard anymore. With 52 weeks in one year, and 5 days in a week, there are 260 business days in one year. In Belgium, we don't work on all of those though, so I had to subtract 25 vacation days, and 6 holidays; bringing down the number of working days to 229. My rather optimistic guess is that I was on the road for somewhere around 140 minutes each day. So 229 days multiplied by 140 minutes comes down to a total of 32060 minutes, or 534 hours, or 66 working days. Gasp! 66 working days per year gone to waste. I knew the numbers were going to be bad, but this is even a lot worse than I expected.

Easing this burden isn't trivial though, and I can only think of a few feasible options, excluded changing jobs:
  • Travel outside rush hours: leave for work very early or really late. I experimented with the former for quite some time, but I never really got used to it. It also seems a bit counterproductive to have your rhythm be too different from that of your team members. I'm guessing your family life will suffer as well, but I can't be the judge of that.
  • Bring the office to you. In this technological day and age there are hardly any sound arguments not to encourage working from home. Yet, the classical enterprise shies away from embracing it and seems to be more comfortable sticking with the status quo than improving working conditions for their employees. 
  • Relocate. This option might be drastic, yet it's the one with the biggest probability of success.
  • If possible, use public transport. Even if your total time enroute increases, you will have more time to do something productive while you take away some of the frustration that comes along with commuting by car.

Earlier this year, I moved from one of the (work-wise) more remote corners of Belgium to a far better located area; the heart of Antwerp. To top that, I'm now living and working within walking distance of the train station, so I'm taking the train on a daily basis. In total I'm still on the go more than two hours, but I can now spend 75% of that time usefully. That's 43 working days extra to spend each year! I've made a habit out of using that commute time for self-study; reading, working on side projects and writing. This seems to have considerably affected my state of mind for the better. I get home at night, and I've already spent a considerable amount of time challenging myself intellectually. I now no longer stress about practicing less 'productive', but very enjoyable activities; such as playing the guitar, working out or doing stuff around the house. I get to have both now.

There are only so few hours in a day, having to spend a considerable amount of that time just to get somewhere seems such a waste. Every day we try tools and techniques which save us a few minutes, and should help us improve the quality of our day-to-day lives, yet we often disregard optimization of the biggest time hog of them all. It goes without saying that those numbing long commutes by car aren't something that I'll ever decide to go back to lightly.

When I read my Twitter feed in the morning, I see a lot of other Belgian people complain about their commute. Is this a Belgian thing only? Which means of transport do you use for the commute? How long are you on the road each day? Have you done the math? 

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35 comments:

  1. I commute by car between Bree and Hasselt each day. Public transportation is practically non-existent in the northern part of Limburg, so the car really is my only option.

    I spend about 90-100 minutes in the car each day, so if I use your average of 229 working days per year, I spend about 21,755 minutes per year in the car. That's 363 hours. Or 15 complete days. So I'm spending two full weeks each year commuting. That makes me very sad :-(

    ReplyDelete
  2. @stiiifff (via Twitter) @JefClaes 4.5 days per year here ... guess it's ok compared to the average ;)

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  3. Lemme see, 15 min drive to the train station, 65 minute train ride (if lucky), 10 min walk to work. So that's 90 minutes and I have to repeat it when I leave work. 180 minutes or 3h/d. 687h per year, or 85.88 working days. Guess you can add 10 - 20% for train delays to that, which makes for 94.5 - 103 days.

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  4. In Auckland, New Zealand, the commute can be horrible too, but the bus service from where I lived could be even worse; 30-45min one way in a car, or potentially 1hr+ by bus (I lived in the last stage, despite being 20 minutes from the city during non-peak times).

    The solution? I bought a motorcycle, which is probably the best thing, albeit potentially the worst thing, I have ever done. Unfortunately I can't spend my 20 minute commute studying or reading like one could do on a train, but I actually somewhat enjoy the commute and don't feel like crap once I arrive at work. That in itself is a why the bus was no good for me. Being 6ft 2" in small seats on a hot bus is not so fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've thought about that, but driving a motorcycle every day just scares me. There is so little room for error.

      Delete
    2. On the other hand you do live in New Zealand ;)

      Delete
  5. I actually did do the math before buying my current house. It is less than a 5 minutes drive or 30 minutes walk to the office that I - was - working in. Due to the economy, our office got closed and the closest job I could get, that didn't require a relocation, is 50-90 minutes away (and it would be 120 if I were to use public transportation, less than 1/2 of which would be 'usable'). Because of the way I bought my house, the economy, and other factors, moving simply wasn't an option, although I'm hoping I can sell the house this time next year, and I'm already looking forward to getting a full-time RV/caravan - precisely so that I have more options on my work:home ratio. :)

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  6. 32 days here, and I like to believe they're not wasted.

    I'm from Paris and we are not usually gifted in that department. I pay extra to live in a small apartment IN Paris, so I have 25mn of metro and 10mn walk.

    - No train change is a real plus: uncertainty can add some precious minutes.

    - 25mn twice a day is enough for skimming Twitter, RSS and some reading. The longer articles I keep for later.

    - walking ten minutes twice a day is the most healthy routine I can keep doing for a long time. All else fails. This is the time I'm most likely to phone my family, too.

    I could probably get a healthier routine by biking but no reading, and probably no phoning too: biking in Paris is becoming more and more bike-friendly but can be dangerous if you don't have bike lanes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. > walking ten minutes twice a day is the most healthy routine I can keep doing for a long time.

      Yep, I don't mind those walks at all!

      Delete
  7. Someone should make a simple page with a table of commute time and days where the days would equal hours and a person would then enter their hourly rate (equated via yearly salary).

    The URL would be bookmarkable so as to be able to send to a boss :)

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  8. No, time wasted due to commuting definitely isn't just a Belgian phenomenon. What's most annoying about this is that this terrible waste of time could be alleviated so easily by having people work remotely.
    However, most employers still just don't seem to get how letting people work remotely has huge advantages for employers as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm guessing employees should get more aggressive advocating that.

      Delete
  9. I'm from Spain, and I live rather close to my office, just 25 km on a straight line, but I used to waste about 60-90 minutes each day, depending on traffic conditions, for six years, because I had to drive through a jammed intersection between two highways. Now that there is a new road with more lanes and a better route towards my work place, it's just a 40 minutes commute each day.
    My problem with public transport is that it would take me a short drive to the train station, but then about 15 min. train ride plus 45 min. bus ride afterwards, or a 20-30 min. drive plus 45 min. bus ride, just to get to the office, so you have to double that count to get the round trip time. And I didn't add the waiting time for the train or the bus.

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  10. Your post hits a chord, as I'm just starting a new job involving over two hours of commute per day. I'm using the train for now, but planning on using company car in a few months. I can't tell which is the worse. The two train lines I take are _always_ late, and since it's always crowded I often can't get a seat and pop up the laptop. Still, seeing which roads I'll have to use with the car, I fear it won't be much better...

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  11. Car pooling with other people can be a good idea (depending on the people!). It's also worth asking your employer to let you work from home for one or two days each week. Can't wait for those self-driving cars :)

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  12. Hello Jef,

    if you haven't yet, please read this article "The True Cost of Commuting" by Mr. Money Mustache:

    http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2011/10/06/the-true-cost-of-commuting/

    I also highly recommend this blog to anyone wishing to retire early, save money or spend it more wisely.

    Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  13. With my last job in Toronto the average commute was over two hours, and you'd be in traffic if you didn't leave before 6am. It's the far end of the bell curve, but have heard reports of over one hour not being too far out of the way. For option #2, I've found Canadian tech companies are incredibly allergic to remote staff, to the point where saying your'e only looking for telecommuting opportunities is akin to saying your'e not working for work at all.

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    Replies
    1. I'm guessing it's not only Canadian tech companies.

      Delete
  14. You must see our lives and the traffic hell in Istanbul. We even do not need to count anyway, it is obvious that it is definite waste of life.

    Greetings,

    Mehmet.
    ---

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi, we are working to solve this problem with Travel Time - its not just commuting to work thats the problem, but actually understanding the world around us in terms of travel. Check out traveltimeapp.com its an API that you can use to search for content by Time not distance. Let me know what you think, I enjoyed reading your article.

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  16. My company lets me work from home 1 day a week, thankfully, and I only have to drive about 45 minutes a day. It works out to be 16.5 work days a years. But it's actually a very low traffic, lovely drive, so I don't get stressed from it.

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  17. I'm (or was) one of your fellow commuters in the morning. Sharing the same slab of asphalt with you.
    The distance I travel is 85km. Without traffic it takes me 50 minutes. In rush hour it takes me at least 80min. The evenings are luckliy less frustrating for me since I join in after the major bottlenecks. On average a 60min drive. 80 + 60 is also 140min a day.

    The problem is not only on the highways. Various friends of me that life close to work (20km. Zonhoven-> Hasselt) still drive 40minutes to work.

    There is a trend with infrastructure planners to add speed bumps, speed cameras, close back routes, narrow lanes or even close them in favor of dedicated bus lanes.
    Truth is that in recent years I have not seen one infrastructure change that improved traffic flow. They all made it worse.
    In my opinion they lack decent evaluation methods here in Belgium. They just build and continue on to the next project. Comparing/analysing objective before and after data if a change had the desired effect, is never done here.

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    Replies
    1. True, we're definitely not the only industry with a lack of reflection!

      Delete
  18. We also sleep 1/3rd of our life... That would make it 25 years of laying in your bed, imagine?

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  19. USA here. I've had a 53 mile (each way) commute in the past. That was horrible. Even with the best of traffic it'd still take me close to an hour to get from point A to point B, and sometimes it was a 3 hour one-way shot. I also had another commute that was over 140 miles, but I stayed in the work area 2-3 nights per week and telecommuted on other days. I lost a lot of my life to the road, and now love my 10-15 minute commute.

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  20. I take public transportation to work. It's a long ride (1.5 to 2 hours), but I wouldn't give it up for anything less than a short drive. Most of that time I spend commuting is more useful and relaxing than driving through traffic. I get remarks all the time that I should drive instead, even after they realize I'd be driving for an hour --at a minimum--, through a high-traffic area.

    Moving closer would be nice, but I'm living with a person I love that works about a 45 minute drive in the opposite direction.

    Where I lived before, I used to drive about an hour to and from work. It was because of the distance, not the traffic, that made it take so long.

    I hope to have a short commute one day...

    ReplyDelete
  21. Being a consultant in Belgium as well and living south of Antwerp (I actually moved out of the "Far West" already), I've worked for customers in all parts of the country in the past 5 years. That's about 1158 working days. Adding the time spent in traffic, I actually need to add another 146 days spent in my car.

    That's 12,6% of quality time, or salary, donated to employers and customers who usually take it all for granted. If you have 20 to 32 vacation days a year, that only counts for 5,5% to 8,5% of vacation a year.

    I believe not only employees should get more aggressive in advocating alternative approaches, employers as well should be demanding this from their customers. A few employers are advocating this now 'cause it makes them sound cool, while their employees are still stuck in traffic jams on a daily basis... Conservative as our country is, I fear it might still take decades before our culture (and infrastructure) is up for it. In the mean time, our roads turn into an even bigger gridlock.

    Not sure I'll wait for that to happen though, I might start an alpaca farm or something, although our national railway company likes to run them over.. :-D

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  22. I've been working from home exclusively for the past six years. When we moved from the city we were 3+ hours drive (each way) from my work so commuting was not an option. My employers (I was working 2 days a week for one tech company and 3 days a week for another) were OK with me working remotely, and that arrangement lasted for some 18 months. I then picked up work with another company in the city and they were OK with me working remotely too.

    After 3 years, we moved to a location some 1.5 to 2 hours drive (each way) from the city, but as I had already established that I could work far more productively from home and as the nature of my work didn't require me to be on-site, the arrangement remained. I've now been with that company for 4+ years, working from home the entire time (I think I've visited the office maybe 6 times in 4+ years).

    I did a presentation on the pros and cons of remote working to the Australian Society of Technical Communicators (NSW) just last week. The slides are here: http://cybertext.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/presentation-remote-working-telecomuting-from-the-trenches/

    --Rhonda

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  23. Just like Xavier, I'm also a consultant in Belgium, and I'm living in the Western part of the country. For me, all my customers are located in Antwerp and Brussels. I've never consciously made ​​the calculation, but I did it now thanks to this blog post. I'm quite ashamed to post the results:

    - When I work at a customer in Antwerp I drive about 100 minutes to, and 100 minutes back from my customer (Traffic jams excluded!!) That's 200 minutes a day, 229 days a year = 95 days wasted!

    - When I work at a customer in Brussels I drive about 120 minutes (at least!) and 120 minutes back. (Traffic jams included, because I'm always stuck on my way to Brussels!!) That's 240 minutes a day, 229 days a year = 114 days wasted!

    So that's an average of 104 days / year :-(

    I try to work at home for at least one day a week, but sometimes, that's a no go..

    But I love my job though :-) and moving is not an option at all!


    - Alexander

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    Replies
    1. Wow, I feel for you. Being in love with the job makes up for things though.

      Delete
  24. I commute from Utrecht to Eindhoven every day. I used to live in Eindhoven and my work was a nice 20 minute bikeride, now I'm spending approx. 75 minutes one-way. Listening to podcasts definitely got old quickly, and going by train is not really an option with all the waiting for buses and so on.

    The solution for now is to work from home two days a week, which really helps. I'm glad my company has this on their radar, otherwise I probably would've been looking for different work.

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