June 1, 2011

Tuesday rant!

No, I’m not just hungover and grumpy. Ok, maybe a little.

I read two things recently that reminded me of one of my pet peeves (and a warning here: after following the MTBR link, the rest of this rant is only very tangentially related to bicycles) – see if you can guess what I’m so upset about:



Figure it out?

Well, here it is: people don’t use math. They don’t use it to solve simple problems, or give them guidance to make decisions, or for anything else if they can help it. This drives me bonkers. In one case, it’s framebuilders who don’t figure out what their costs are (hence reducing profits for those of us who do, and putting themselves out of business at the same time). In another, it’s people who go for a job that pays a few extra bucks in exchange for a longer commute.

Now, let me be clear. I am not asking anyone to solve any differential equations, or find the slope of a curve at some point, or even figure out the area of a circle. I am just asking them to add, subtract, divide, and multiply. With a computer, a calculator, or a piece of paper and a pencil. Anything.

For example, people have reacted incredulously when I tell them that their 2 hour daily commute is worse for them than smoking a pack a day (the statement is deliberate hyperbole, but I’ll show you why it’s actually sort of true in a second). I ask them how long they think they’d spend over a 40 year career, if they had to commute 2 hours a day, and most people guess a couple of months.

Let’s do the math.
-2 hours a day.
-10 hours a week.
If we assume 2 weeks of vacation a year (crappy job, but it makes the math easier):
-500 hours a year
Assuming you work for 40 years at the same job (again, to keep things simple):
-20,000 hours of commuting. That’s 833 days, or 2.3 years.

Ok, so you’ve wasted over 2 years of your life sitting in a car, just to go to work. But it gets worse – the car isn’t free, and in most cases your job won’t compensate you for your commute, so:
-If you’re averaging 40mph, you’re driving 80 miles a day.
-400 miles a week.
-20,000 miles a year.
-800,000 miles in a 40 year career.

Now, gas and maintenance cost money. Of course, this varies a lot depending on your car, how you drive it, how well you maintain it, etc. But we can make a good guess, based on the rate at which cars age, costs of fuel, etc. Luckily, Edmunds (and others) have already done the hard work – so you can just click over to their TOC (true cost of ownership) calculator and see for yourself.

If I say I’ll drive a 2011 Honda Accord sedan (a relatively efficient choice) the cost per mile is about 50 cents (and yes, I also chose that car to make the math easy). We’ll do our math in constant 2011 dollars and assume fuel prices stay relatively stable (they’ll probably go up, but that makes it much more complicated to tell the story):

-800,000 miles in a career at 50 cents a mile.
-$400,000 total cost.

Yes, I’m aware that most people *have a car anyway* and hence the additional cost of driving it to work isn’t really 50 cents a mile. Let’s say it’s half that amount, so 25 cents a mile. We’re down to $200,000.

But that $200,000 could be earning you money as an investment in something else – stocks, bonds, mutual funds, part ownership of a topless bar… so let’s assume you invest your $5000 a year at 3% interest. Say, in municipal bonds or something.

-After 40 years of contributing $5000 a year, and earning a modest 3% on the principal, you’ve got $377,000. The difference between $377,000 and $200,000 is $177,000 – which is the opportunity cost of spending the money on commuting instead of investing it.

So commuting has cost you $377,000 over your career, a mix of additional fuel/maintenance costs (above and beyond the costs of owning the car in the first place) and lost income from investments never made.

Now, let’s assume you don’t really *enjoy* your job that much and are doing it primarily to put a roof over your head, food on the table, and save some money for retirement. $377,000 is a decent chunk of change:

-Most of my blog readers are smart cookies (well, maybe not if you’re still reading…), so let’s say you make $40/hour writing code, doing science, or managing a topless bar.
-That’s $320/day.
-$1600 a week
-$80,000 a year. Nice!

But, uh-oh, you have $377,000 in commuting expenses to deal with – so you’ll need to work 9425 hours to pay for it. That’s 393 days, or 1.07 years of sitting at a desk.

But of course, you can’t work 24 hours a day. Assuming you’re still working your normal schedule, it’ll take 4.7 years to pay that off (and of course you still have to commute to work!)

So we’re at 2.3 years of sitting in the car, plus 4.7 years of extra work. That’s 7 years of your life, essentially wasted. Years that you could have spent hanging out with your family, going on vacation, or watching Stargate SG-1.

So, how bad is smoking for you? According to numerous sources, about 11 minutes per cigarette. For the average smoker, that’s 6.5 years over a lifetime.

Hence, to me, commuting 2 hours a day is worse than smoking. Obviously, this is a stretch – the 4.7 years you spent working to pay for your commute are better than being dead! Heck, sitting in your car for 2.3 years is also better than being dead. So yes, it’s obviously hyperbole, but if you add things up, commuting by car (alone) does shorten your enjoyable life an amazing amount.

Now, to be fair, most people have limited choices when it comes to commuting, but they should demand MUCH higher pay for long commutes – at least, they should if they feel their lives are worth something. And all you middle managers? If you’re not letting your employees telecommute as much as possible, you’re wasting their lives, time, and money. You can look at the very simple math here and see why. Sitting in a box on a freeway is a waste of time for EVERYONE, so it would make sense to avoid it.

But nobody ever does the math, or at least that’s the way it seems to me. They build frames for $400 and go out of business in a year, they spend their lives miserably trying to pay for their cars, and they never once think to sit down and use some simple math to guide their decisions.

So use math. It’s not that hard. It works.


-Yes, I know that the real-world calculations are more complex than this. The point is that you can use basic math as a tool to help give you useful information in making decisions. Commuting might be the right choice for you – but unless you’ve sat down and run the numbers, you’ll never really know. Most people go with their gut – but their guts are often wrong.

-Yes, I am aware that making blog posts takes time. I type pretty fast, and I read pretty fast, but this one probably still took half an hour. I’ve posted 929 times or something like that, so if the average post took me 15 minutes, that’s 232 hours, or almost 10 days of sitting at the computer! In my defense, I enjoy semi-creative writing (I consider the blog a hobby) and it also serves to promote my business. I doubt most people consider driving in traffic enjoyable or profitable.

-Here’s another fun article (follow the link and read the research from the Philly Fed): http://www.slate.com/id/2295851/