Your Car Commute May Not Be As Fast As You Think

I had occasion recently to drive to work and couldn’t help but notice that my time in the car–about 28 minutes–was a little more than half the time I generally spend commuting by bicycle. I often hear the concern that riding is a big time committment, but is driving really that much faster than riding a bike? Today, I look beyond the speedometer.
Picture of speedometer
Just because your speedometer has a 200 on it doesn’t mean you can get to work that fast. In fact, you are probably going a lot more slowly than you think. Photo by Marcelo Braga.

I was very young and seated next between the front seats in our car (unbelted, of course–it was the early 70s) and had recently learned big numbers. I noticed that our car’s speedometer when to 180 miles per hour and said something to the effect of, “Wow, we can go 180?!” My father explained that we could not, and that the number was there to give us the impression that we could go that fast if we wanted to.

I thought of that experience a few weeks ago sitting when, while sitting at an interminable stoplight, I noticed that family Hyundai’s speedometer goes to a much more realistic 160. Of course you know that you can’t go 160 mph, but there are three reasons your car isn’t as fast as it would like you to think.

1. Cars spend a lot of time not actually going very fast

When I was on the freeway I actually had moments when I was going 75 miles per hour, and really cruzin’ to the office. When I bike past a “your speed is” trailer on my way to work, it generally reads between 15 and 18, so 75 is way better, right? But in order to get my 6 minutes of travelling 75 mph, I had to go less than 20 in three school zones, sit idling at stoplights, stop signs, driveways, and crosswalks, had to walk to and from my car.

Add in the time spent scraping ice from the car, driving to and from the gas station, the car wash, the lube shop, etc. All of this necessary time reduces the speed at which I can actually claim to have traveled.

2. Your car is not free

An idea nicely captured in The Conversation is that of effective time, which includes the time spent earning money to pay for the the direct costs associated with car driving (fuel, tolls, parking, insurance, financing, taxes, depreciation, parking, etc.).

If you accept AAA’s number of $8776 per year as the cost of car ownership and you make $30 per hour, you have to work 292 hours in a year to pay for your car. If your commute is an hour per day, and you drive to work 230 times per year, you are spending 522 hours driving or earning your car (and we are not even counting the time spent fueling and maintaining it). If you drive an average of 7500 miles per year, your effective speed is…14 miles per hour (7500/522) or about the speed of my bicycle.

By comparison, the annual cost of my bicycle is about $200. If I were making $30 per hour, I would only tack 7 hours per year to my commuting to reflect time spent earning enough to pay for my bike. If I took the bus, I would have to work about 29 hours per year to pay for my transportation.

3. Time spent in a car can’t be multiplied

When you are driving, you can do only one thing (safely anyway): drive. Time spent on a bus or bike, on the other hand can be double or triple counted. On the bus, I can process my overnight email, effectively knocking 30 minutes off my workday while also getting to work. On a bike, I can get my excercise  done and  (through audiobooks) meet reading goals, or do my strategic thinking while also getting to work.

There is one way in which driving can be seen as increasing your relative speed — by making your overall life shorter:  One study found that each extra hour spent in cars per day was linked to a 6% increase in the likelihood of obesity. But that’s a subject for another post.

On the face of it driving to work seems much faster (a 160 mph commute would take me far less than a minute!), but there is more to it than simple speed. Don’t let the apparent slowness of a bike or bus discourage you from questioning your commute.

Question: How important is speed in your life?

7 thoughts on “Your Car Commute May Not Be As Fast As You Think

  1. In this regard, I always remember Bill Cosby’s response to Carroll Shelby’s complaint about Bill always driving foreign cars: “an American car only does 160 … Ferrari goes 180 … I need a car that does 180 or better to get to work … I live two miles from work.”

  2. Depending on your commute, sometimes it literally is faster to commute by bike without taking into account all the time spent earning the money to pay for a car. In congested cities your argument # 1 is more apparent. There is a greater percentage of a person’s car commute that is spent where the car is not going anywhere very fast because they are stuck in traffic.

    I work in Boston with a 6 mile commute to work. There is often a lot of car traffic to the point where not all the cars queued at the various traffic lights can get through the intersection in a given light cycle.

    Because there is a separate bike lane, I can easily get get through the intersections on my bike in a single light cycle (yes I am stopping at the red lights and following all the traffic laws) allowing me to pass all the car traffic and get to work faster than if I drove.

    1. How right you are BDW. I maintain that trips under a mile are ALWAYS faster on a bike and people just can’t wrap their heads around it…until I get to the restaurant before they do after work.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I work about 3.5 miles from home. Driving is usually about 5 minutes faster, but I hate it 100% more than bicycling. I wonder if there is a logarithm there that could be used to determine what distance I would actually consider driving? Probably, but I failed calculus.

    1. Economists find ways to quantify everything, so I’m sure there is a way to sum distance/desire/value. I used to ride 14 miles per day and wondered how much further I would be willing to ride, then our office moved and my commute became 22 miles per day, and I don’t hesitate to ride it.

      1. good for you Matthew …….my 3.0 miles is a perfect distance to the office and I try to work in 2-3 intervals each way to optimize my 12-15 minute commute. Some days I’ll add an extra distance of 3-5 miles depending on the weather, etc. (if you don’t know what an interval is google it)

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