The easiest, most reliable commute is a short single mode trip with a backup. I commuted for many years by walking two miles to work, using the bus as backup or for returning home in the winter. This commute also enabled be to get much of my shopping and errands done during the work week. I also got in at least 12 miles of walking every week. My last two commutes were to internships that involved a five-block walk and telecommuting. My walking commutes were possible because I lived and worked in neighborhoods where work and residences were mixed together. A bike commute would also likely be easy in such places. In the U.S., these places are found in central cities, small towns, and smart growth neighborhoods. If you do not live in a place like this, your commute is probably going to involve more expense and trouble. You can have more commuting options if you think about where you might work and shop when you choose a place to live.
Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it. —Ellen Goodman
Bike commuting used to be pretty unusual in the U.S., except for in a few college towns. It is now growing everywhere, in dense places like New York City and in less compact metro regions like Sacramento, the national leader in percentage of bike commuters. There have been many policy and attitude changes that support biking as a transportation option. New types of commuter bicycles and bike gear are also making it easier to get to work by bike. Commuter bikes offer serious transportation features such as all-weather designs, better brakes, shock absorbers, great lights, smooth or completely automatic shifting, fenders, and grease guards to protect work clothing. These are not the heavy road bikes of old, though old cruisers are preferred by some bike commuters. Other cyclists prefer commuting on hybrid (mountain/road) bikes. If you need to carry that bike up transit or other steps, a specialized, lighter weight commuter cycle may make sense. There are a lot of options out there: check out REI's How to Choose Commuting Bike Gear. Some bike commuters opt for electric bikes, which are of course pretty expensive and heavy but may be a good choice for long or steep trips. Folding bikes are also useful for commuters with long trips to make, since they make it much easier to use transit or other nonbike connections for part of the commute. It seems to me though that these bikes are perfect for traveling, so they are discussed on the Busgrrrl Weekends Page.
Although good gear can make a commute more comfortable, according to many bike commuters, an important step when starting to commute by bike is to plan and test your route. Bicycle Commuting Benefits, Checklist, and Tips offers a comprehensive list of steps to take. The Web has many sites and blogs where people share good bike routes around their region. Bikely is a national site with detailed routes.
Bikes are an approachable technology. You can learn to store, maintain, and repair them yourself, which is especially important for bike commuters. See this insurance group's bike commuting guide, as well as the Busgrrrl Safety Page.
When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I'm leaving.—Steven Wright
Telecommuting and flexible schedules
The easiest way to reduce your commuting hassles and costs may be to simply reduce commuting trips. Compressed work weeks, flexible hours, and job sharing can all cut the number of trips needed to and from work. Telecommuting is a popular way to drastically cut commuting. Telecommuters can work completely from home offices, but most workers will need to meet with clients or coworkers occasionally, so they will still need a way to get to those meetings. However, they will not need to be using the roads and rails during the congested and stressful periods of the work week, euphemistically called the peak commute, or oxymoronically called the rush hour. In many areas, those meetings can happen at a bikeable or walkable coffee shop, which likely provides reliable Internet access.
U.S. employers and government agencies know the benefits of flexible hours and telecommuting. Telecommuting has now entered the mainstream. The U.S. Census now tracks telecommuting, and telecommuting is touted as a component of Homeland Security and "business continuity", since teleworkers can usually continue to work during and after disasters. If your company or boss still needs some convincing, here is a good convince-me article, Quintessential Careers, and a general resource, TelCoa. For funnier looks at the subject of working at home, check out cartoons like Terri Libenson's Pajama Diaries and Nicole Hollander's Sylvia, although does Sylvia actually work?, or anything by James Thurber.
Job sharing is not a common option. It requires unusually cooperative and motivated employers and employees. The only people I have known lucky enough to have this option were a high school teacher and an environmental scientist. When two people share a job, they may be able to succeed at a stressful job much longer. However, job sharing doesn't necessarily involve working at home or flexible scheduling, in which case it reduces commuting only by reducing work hours.
For the last year of my longest job, I worked four days per week, 32 hours, in part because being car free let me afford to reduce my work week. Even if I had had to work 40 hours or more in 4 days, I think that extra free day would have been worth it. It gave me time to start and finish projects and to just relax on weekends. Flexible scheduling not only simplifies commuting, it makes for happier, more productive employees.
Ridicule is the burden of genius—Daffy Duck
Emergency Ride Home programs
Emergency Ride Home programs, also known as Guaranteed Ride Home programs, provide one solution to some major objections to transit and shared commuting: how do you get home quickly in an emergency without a personal car? what if you need to work unscheduled overtime, past your transit service's hours? These programs are not offered in every community or available at many small workplaces, but there are many of these (usually) government-sponsored programs available in the U.S. Even suburban and rural counties offer them, although they take a somewhat different form in those places. Workers who commute in carpools, by transit, or by just about any means other than a personal car can register with an ERH program to receive a limited number of vouchers, or scrip, to be spent on emergency trips. The commuter who uses a voucher usually has to fill out some paperwork describing how they used the system (just the usual customer survey-type form) to get more vouchers.
In urban areas, the voucher is usually good for covering a cab or car-service ride, although it may not include any allowance for a tip. The cost of transit may also be covered. The commuter can make some number of stops, for example, to pick up medicine at a drug store before heading to their kids' school or to get something at the hardware store before heading home to deal with a house or pet emergency. Alameda County and parts of Virginia are among the many locales that offer urban-style programs.
In areas with limited transit service or in situations when taxis are not practical, the voucher pays for a rental/car-share car (usually delivered to the worksite). The commuter(s) then must return the rental car to the rental agency or work site within a certain amount of time.
Driving by yourself to and from work costs way more than you think it does. Way more. Unless of course you work at one of the organizations that develops commuting cost calculators. The rest of us are probably still gaging our commute costs based on fuel prices or on those low costs published every year by the IRS.
- The True Cost of Driving: a bit preachy but complete
- Commuter Challenge: a good tool, just subsitute your local transit pass costs
- Rideshare Commute Cost Calculator: a good comparison tool
- Carbon Costs: a simple environmental footprint calculator
- UCLA's PEIR: a location-based (mobile) tool
Even these good cost calculators underestimate the personal costs of owning a car because they rarely consider the costs related to the tradeoff decisions people must make.
- Does it make financial sense to buy a second car for commuting to a cheaper house located far from transit and work? Try searching for more information on "smart commute mortgages" or "green mortgages".
- How much are you spending on exercise and health expenses that might be unnecessary if your commute were less stressful or could be done by biking or walking?
- If you cut your driving in half, how much longer could you put off replacing your vehicle?
- If you don't depend on your car to get to work or school, could your next vehicle be cheaper, more energy efficient, safer, or even something fun like a Vespa?
- Would you put more money in savings if you didn't have to worry about so many unpredictable expenses?
Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time. —Steven Wright
Employers can help workers reduce their commuting times and impacts with direct assistance programs. Bike lockers, showers for walkers/bikers, ride-matching assistance, rides to and from transit, and preferred carpool/vanpool parking all help employees commute. Employers benefit from having happier employees. They also cut the cost of providing employee parking when their workers do not commute alone. Ideally, they pass these savings on as rebates, called parking cash-outs, for workers not requiring parking spaces. Tax credits for employers can help fund all sorts of assistance.
Trip reduction strategies can be simple, like subsidized transit passes and carpool parking spots. More creative employers like the City of Berkeley offer subsidized car share vehicles so employees don't have to drive to work just to get to cross-town meetings. A simple variation on the Emergency Ride Home theme is the alternative commuter parking voucher. One building I worked at (a platinum-certified green business) offered 1-2 days of free parking per month to car-free commuters to the building. This allowed workers to use their cars only for special needs like making a mid-day appointment. The same organization also implemented a trial free-bike program, so employees could use bikes for lunch-time errands or exercise. These programs probably got the building management some points toward LEED Green Business recertification. Large employers, even some less progressive employers such as the megacorporation I once worked for, can afford to staff commuting-help lines and to buy or lease commute vans. Commuter Choice helps employers plan and set up programs. Lastly, submitted for your amusement, a parking cartoon from Bug.
Since you probably have to commute to work, how can you make it interesting? Talking loudly on your cell phone or preaching to passengers on the train doesn't qualify here. Some learn languages while commuting. There are also PDAs and smart phones to load with road songs, e-books, and other e-gear, ad e-nauseum, to help you pass the commute time.
Here is a small list of my faves. Send me a great commute and I may add it:
- Row-your-boat: In WWII, hardy Washington state defense workers rowed miles to work
- Knit-a-train: join the knitting circle on the commute on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor trains
- Skate-a-train: solve that last-mile to the train problem by skateboarding or push scootering to the station
- Train shenanigans from San Francisco's pranksters: fun but potentially less than legal performances
- Train-kneads: Capitol Corridor offers free massages on passenger appreciation days
- Walking school buses: healthful commuting for kids
- Pink buses: women-only buses in Mexico City for grope-free travel
- Berkeley's own Pink Man: unicycling or bicycling in a superhero costume