Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?

If there was a simple and readily available way to sharply curtail our oil consumption and oil imports, save the average American hundreds or thousands of dollars per year, significantly clean the air in our cities, reduce America’s medical expenditures, and materially decrease the stress levels and over-scheduling of most Americans, would you be in favor of it?  (If you answered no, please send an even tangentially coherent email explaining why.)

It’s quite easy to do.  All it will take is for companies and governmental agencies to change their antiquated and inflexible practice of requiring their employees to congregate at designated geographic locations for specific periods of time on workdays, and allow their employees to telecommute and work from home.  It doesn’t even need to be every day; telecommuting two, three or four days per week would be preferable and a major improvement to the status quo.

OK, technically, this is not about home energy use.  But, it is about household energy use and saving energy and money.  This is about what we spend just commuting to and from work, which might reasonably and accurately be called the Invisible Expenses.

Everyone is aware of how much they spend on gasoline each month.  But the actual cost to operate a car is much more than that, when you include tire and brake replacements, oil changes, mileage dictated maintenance and servicing by the dealer, replacement of parts that may break or fail, and the loss of value with increasing mileage.

As cars have also become more expensive to purchase and maintain, and the average commute distances have steadily increased as cities have expanded into suburbs and exurbs, the cost of commuting has inexorably risen.

Some government numbers can help quantify the cost to the average person.

According to a nationwide poll, the typical American now commutes 32 miles a day to and from work (or 160 miles per week).  Figure about 48 weeks a year (52 weeks – 2 weeks of vacation – 2 weeks of holidays, sick time, etc).  Multiplying 48 x 160 = 7,680 miles of work – related commuting per year.

The IRS mileage tax deduction is currently $0.50 per mile, which is their estimate of the total cost to operate a car.  Multiplying the 7,680 miles per year by $0.50 per mile equals $3,840 per year to commute to and from work.  The $3,840 does not include tolls for toll roads or any parking costs.

In 2009, the median annual income for an average American was about $27,600.  That means the average American spends about 14% of their gross income (or roughly one dollar out of every seven dollars they earn) just commuting to work.

Workers needed to congregate in manufacturing and construction industries, and still do.  Prior to the technological and communication revolutions, people needed to congregate in offices to effectively communicate and distribute information.

But now that we have become a Post-Industrial society, which I think is a fancy and optimistic way of saying we don’t make anything here anymore, and technology has evolved from those early office days the reasons to congregate employees has dissipated.

Go back even 30 years ago and there were no Pcs or laptops, no internet or email, no Blackberrys, I-phones or I-pads, cell phones were clunky and had limited range and utility, and fax machines were new, cutting edge technology.  Now fax machines sit unused in most offices, supplanted by newer and better methods to electronically transmit information and documents, and almost everyone has access to all those other tools.

Outside of providing an especially illuminating B-school case study on institutional inertia and un-enlightened management decision-making (as if there weren’t enough cases of that to study ad nauseam), why do we continue to do it?  Why do companies and governmental agencies persist in forcing their employees to engage in the daily demolition derby on roads and highways to do their jobs?

It is time to change!

About the Author

Mark H. Witte is a strong proponent for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and believes individuals should have more control over how the energy for their homes is produced.