How Car Commuting Is Wasting Your Time

How Car Commuting Is Wasting Your Time

Are you addicted to speed? Has a “hurry virus” taken over your life? Building faster roads or buying a fast car or a second car may seem appealing solutions to time pressure. Yet our obsession with speed, and our reliance on cars as a supposedly fast mode of transport, may be an underlying cause of our lack of time. The more we rely on “time-saving” machines such as cars, the more time we lose.

Picture by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The following anecdote helps resolve this paradox.

Imagine living in a village, where your job each day is to collect a bucket of water from the river. This takes an hour each day. To “save time” you build a machine to fetch the water. However, to make the machine work, you need to spend two hours each day winding up a spring.

In modern cities, the equivalent of “winding up the spring” is the time spent at work earning the money to pay for all our transport costs. For pedestrians, this time is virtually nil. For cyclists it is minimal. For car drivers, the time spent earning the money to pay for all the costs of cars is usually much greater than the time spent driving.

Motorists may think they are saving time with their cars when it takes 20 minutes to drive to work, compared to 30 or 40 minutes on a bicycle. However, motorists might be spending one or two hours per day (or more) earning the money to cover the cost of their cars, while cyclists spend only a few minutes per day earning the money to pay for their bicycles.

The concept of “effective speed” takes into account all the time costs of any mode of transport, not just the time spent travelling.

When the various costs of cars are taken into account, their effective speeds are surprisingly low. Estimates of effective speed show how slow cyclists can travel and still be effectively faster than a car.

Cyclists in Melbourne or Sydney who can average around 15km/h would be effectively faster than a motorist on an average income in the “fastest” new car (that is, the one with lowest operating costs). In New York, cyclists would need to cycle at only 9 km/h to be effectively faster than a car. In London, 7 km/h would place cyclists ahead of the fastest new car.

The higher trip speeds of cars do not save time; instead they encourage longer travel distances as the city spreads out and local shops, schools and services close. In cities dominated by cars people spend more time travelling by motorised transport than in cities where public transport and cycling are the main modes.

As the speed of cars increases, so does the cost. When motorists drive faster to save time, the few seconds they may save will cost much more than that in the time needed to pay for the extra fuel, wear and tear on the car, and stress. Paradoxically, switching from the car to the bicycle will reduce the total time we spend on travel, as well as boosting our health directly through increased physical activity.

Unlike drivers, increases in trip speed for cyclists could result in a substantial increase in their effective speed. This is because the main time component for cycling is the time spent on the bicycle. Increases in trip speeds for cyclists could be achieved with minimal cost.

If governments understand the concept of effective speed they will also appreciate the futility of trying to save time by trying to increase the average trip speeds of private motor vehicles. Cities that invest most effectively in cycling infrastructure will have more time and money to devote to things other than transport, including health promotion.

Improving urban health might be as simple as valuing the time of cyclists more than the time of motorists.

Paul Tranter is a human geographer at the University of New South Wales. In 2004 Paul Tranter received funding from the Australian Greenhouse Office for a report on the topic of effective speed: “Effective Speeds: Car Costs are Slowing Us Down”

The Conversation This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • I drive a car to work for two reasons 1. Public transport is woeful where I work (not the city) as the past ten years of state governments have failed utterly and completely when it comes to public transport infrastructure and 2. the comfort of the ride outweighs the increased cost. I have space (not crammed up against some personal hygiene deficient commuter), I have heating in winter, cooling in summer (within my control). I have music or radio that can be as loud as I want without drowning out ambient noise (like headphones do). I can also go anywhere, deviate my course for any reason without changing transport types or worrying about the availability of bike lanes. And I need a car anyway for weekends and personal time so I’m using a resource that I would otherwise be paying for even if it was sitting in the driveway.

    • Good point. If you already own a car the only increased cost is petrol, wear and tear on the car, and parking at the other end.

      The article doesn’t provide much of the data they created the effective speed figures, but it seems to assume you only own a car to travel to work. While you could use this to take a two-car family down to a one-car family, most people would still own a car. I’d like to see the calculations before I make up my mind on how trustworthy they are.

      (disclaimer: I’m a cyclist who doesn’t own a car, but I’m in the minority)

      • I’m in the same category, cyclist who doesn’t own a car. (but as of saturday I have got a motorbike)

        if you have a car sitting at home in addition to the bike (which most cyclists do) these calculations may as well be thrown out the window. the above analogy can be changed to winding it up for 1.5 hours per day and it doesn’t even get the water for you

    • I drive a car to work because I have equipment that I can not carry on a bicycle or public transport.
      If not for that I would not own a car. I spend over $20,000 per year on motor vehicle expenses.
      Here is an interesting fact… For less than $20,000 per year I could do all of my travel in a stretch Limo and still have change left over!

        • Sometimes, but not always. The “equipment” in question is specifically a live dove and rabbit. I perform as a comedy/magic entertainer. Occasionally, drivers have objected to carrying livestock. I need a 100% guaranteed solution, so until I find a company that will accommodate my animals, I’m stuck with driving myself.
          I wouldn’t use a stretch, (I’m not that pretentious!) but I have used private hire drivers. They are cheaper than a stretch, and only marginally more expensive than a taxi. They are always clean, and most important – always on time. They take you “door-to-door”, so there are no parking hassles. And the best bit? They speak English as a first language!

          • “Marginally more expensive” is about triple the cost in my experience. That aside, you have the coolest job ever; I was expecting you to say “computer hardware” or “product samples” :p

  • I think this article only takes into account part of argument. I see no mention of public transport, no mention of the inconveniences involved with riding (showering, spare clothes, etc..), and very little mention of actual real costs.

    It’s a good start though…..

    • The article does in fact cover that, you missed the point!!
      Most regular cyclists travel at least 20km/h (meaning that extra hassle for clothes/shower are negated) and the whole public transport issue is adressed in the fact that local services shut down. Basically more cars CAUSES bad public transport as it spreads people out making it more expensive or difficult to cover eveything with a good public option – causing more cars and more expense for cars.

        • I assumed he meant the extra time as the inconvenience. The article uses 10km/hr as the break even point on cycling and 20km/hr is pretty much a dawdle.
          A backpack with a change of clothes takes just a couple of minutes to pack before I leave and a shower doesn’t take very long.

          • If you plan carefully you barely need to take much to work anyway (as a cyclist). I leave two pairs of trousers on hangers at work, plus shoes, socks and belt. I carry in a shirt and underwear. I shower at home before I ride (backwards, I know), but a quick dry off and spray is all that’s needed to keep my physiology in check.
            I know that’s not quite the point of the article, but it’s dead easy to organise riding to work, so figured I’d get it out there…

        • We have a dry cleaning pick up and drop off service at work, which is great as I don’t waste time doing it myself. Also it is partially subsidised by work.

          Also I shower once I get to work instead of before I leave home, which works out great as I ride 30km round trip and usually go to the gym near work in the morning.

          It’s not for everyone, but for a lot of people it can work out a lot better, they are just too stubborn to change.

          I still drive on weekends and the like, but riding my bike saves me close to an hour if not more each day. Also saves me a fortune in fuel, tolls and parking.

  • The extra money I pay in rent to live in the CBD is far outweighed by the convenience costs of walking to work, walking to the shops, walking to everything and not owning a car. Regardless of how long it “takes” you to earn an hours’ operating costs there are more factors than just time v money to consider.

  • Some things I don’t currently like about people riding bikes (it’s not everyone) is the ones that ride on crowded footpaths, one almost knocked me over (did hit me) and didn’t even stop to help. The other is when you have people riding in the middle of the road, not caring that they are holding up traffic, not allowing cars to turn in a side street or whatever. It’s not every rider, I know that but when I see the ones doing the wrong and sometimes dangerous things I cannot help but wonder how they are still around and why they haven’t been hit before. I brought this up becuase of the picture you are using, it annoyed me.

    • I know the feel. I hate it when riders ride right on the white line, even though there’s a mile of newly paved shoulder to cycle on. I hate having to move over dangerously close to the middle of the road because someone feels the need to see how long they can stay on the line for.

      Plus the teenagers who zig-zag across the road and only move when you’re right behind ’em.

      • See this is the problem us cyclists have. We have two people here saying they don’t like us using footpaths. Ok, let’s move onto the road. No, still not happy. We have to ride away from the edge as there is a lot of glass and debris. As another commenter pointed out, we also move to the middle of the lane to slow traffic when required. I do it before roundabouts to prevent motorists trying to overtake me on a roundabout as I can travel a lot faster through them. I’d love nothing more than dedicated bicycle infrastructure where cars and pedestrians weren’t allowed. I’d be happy to pay a “rego” or some other tax to make it happen, so I’m far removed from idiot pedestrians and idiot motorists alike. For the record, I also agree there are plenty of idiot cyclists too.

        • I had a woman overtake me while I was going through the roundabout, even though I was doing 20km/h+ through it.
          She did this by driving the wrong way around the roundabout, clever little cookie.

        • I had a woman overtake me on a T intersection, I was turning right, she was going left. Our paths crossed and I ended up hitting the rear passenger door and coming off. She didn’t stop. But the dent I left in the door, I’m sure that taught her a lesson.

    • Yep, it always turns to those ‘crappy’ cyclists. I see stupid driving *every single day* I drive my car. The roads are not well-designed for cyclists at all. Yes, there’s an education problem, but there’s also an infrastructure problem and an attitude problem. Australians are car-biased and think bicycles are either toys or just annoying. Attitudes to cyclists in other countries are different (and I’m not just talking about Amsterdam). You can now travel faster on a bike through Sydney, than you can in a car.

  • It’s fairly simple for me. I can spend half an hour driving and getting cranky at traffic, or I can spent 45 minutes on public transport reading or working or napping.


  • +1 Kato. Public transport is such an utterly terrible experience and waste of time I gladly pay that extra money to never have to use it ever again ever.
    Also I’m sure cycling is good in theory, if you live close to work, at a desk job, and you have a shower at your workplace or workmates who don’t mind the bo of your morning commute.

  • I ride to work 4 days a week. The 5th day I take a change of clothes for the next week. We have showers and lockers at work. I save a heap of money not driving. Having said that, I’m into bikes and own three – it’s not a cheap hobby.

  • In all fairness taking the lane and stopping cars from passing is often the safest thing to do. If a cyclist goes to the side of the lane cars overtake far too close, whereas riding in the center prevents this. At the end of the day getting home safe is my number 1 priority. I am more than happy to slow down motorists to ensure this. Also, when I do get overtaken (which tends to be by cars crossing double white lines into oncoming traffic) I almost always catch up to the car by the next set of lights. So obviously the overtake isn’t even saving them time as they would get caught behind the lights regardless!

    • I don’t like seeing cars almost side swipe cyclists, and it’s usually not safe to change lanes, so I usually slow down and tail the cyclist (effectively a safety barrier for them- I keep a safe distance, but close enough that someone couldn’t try and fill the gap) – is this cool, or does it freak cyclists out?

      Drivers, I know it bugs you. Deal!

  • This is rather pointless. It only shows one benefit of the bike over a car without considering others.
    A car has the following benefits over a bike.
    No need to change clothes – eg you wouldn’t ride in your suit.
    No need to shower when you get to work – for those who need to be presentable especcially after a longer ride.
    You won’t get wet in you car
    You can drive in any weather – wind, rain, hail, snow or 45C heat.
    While it’s cost effective to ride a bike, it becomes far less time effective, the longer your commute is.

    Such a one sided article…

  • My, what a blinkered litany of smug human geographicism! Where to start? Cars aren’t purchased for the sole purpose of commuting? Not everyone is within walking/cycling range of work? Not everyone is serviced by public transport? Not everyone is serviced by reliable public transport? Not everyone is of the pugnacious disposition to take on rush hour traffic on a bike protected only by a stack hat and lycra?

    • Most of your arguments are CAUSED by your commute, which is eactly what the article is trying to say.
      You live further away because you car allows you to.
      You have to take on traffic because people don’t value cycling infrastructure (this is thankfully changing, although I dont’ mind cycling in traffic I would prefer to ride on the PSP network)
      Public transport struggles because people are too spread out

      • So, if only the feckless masses could be convinced to live in the “correct” areas and demand that infrastructure be built for a form of transportation whose users don’t pay registration then everything would be fine? Afraid not, Tranter’s article is just another example of elitist eco-posturing dressed up dispassionate analysis. If people like cycling, good on ’em, otherwise, give the evangelism a rest. And stop ruining coffee shops on weekend mornings!

      • I live further away from work because I don’t have $500,000 to buy a one bedroom apartment. Instead, I bought a $260,000 apartment with two decent sized bedrooms, and the ability to park my car to use to see my widowed mother on the weekends without doing a 3-4 hour train ride each way, due to the hub-centric layout of Sydney’s rail network.

  • I don’t think the headline is quite correct, then — this article is about how it’s wasting your money…

    Say you work for 40 hours a week — this is the same regardless of transport method. What you’re “wasting” is the money you earned from that work…

    But, if like you say earlier on, driving is faster than riding, then you’re paying more to get to work faster. It’s a simple time vs. money trade off… Some might not consider paying more to get to work faster a “waste” because it results in more personal time…

    If it takes longer to drive than to ride, then yeah — maybe you need to reconsider your method, but there’s still so many things to take into account first…

  • Except when riding said glorious push bike you’re forced to deal with people that ride without their hands on the handlebars and their incompetence has you off, gifting you with a fractured collarbone. Wider paths would be nice and possibly legal protection for me if I see this person again.

  • So instead of driving the 70km down a freeway to work, I would be saving time by riding a bike or walking the 70km (110kph speed limit) to work? Mind. Blown.

  • The article talks about the fact that a greater part of my income is spent paying for a car than it would paying for a bike, then they infer that if I rode I wouldn’t have to work as many hours. Imagine going to my boss and saying ‘I don’t need to work that last 2 hours today because I don’t need the money’…..

  • But if you have to work those hours anyway, and your car gets you to work quickly in what is (for me at least) quite a stress free environment, this argument becomes a moot point.

    I could argue that it is in fact far more stressful to ride a bike in heavy traffic with motorists that don’t appreciate you holding up all of the traffic.

  • How about improving public transport as if someone living in Penrith can really cycle all the way to Sydney CBD and save time. Or you get rid of half the cars and make for more scooter and motorbike parking ?

    Motorbikes are cheaper in everything from rego, insurance (if your not going for a 1000cc bike and above) petrol is cheaper then a week of transport from Parramatta to Sydney. A small commuting scooter can cost you just under $2000 for a 250cc with all on road costs included.

    My boyfriend and i ride everywhere, the only exception is to do the weekly shop even then i usually carry most of my groceries in a backpack. And when it’s absolutely pissing down.

  • I don’t think this really works, because it’s not like you can tell your boss “well I ride a bike so only need to work 6 hours a day, not 8 like if I owned a car”. You still have to be at work for the same amount of time…

    • Not if you’re a contractor.
      I’m planning to retire early with the money I’ve saved by cycling to work. I have a retirement savings target and the sooner I reach it, the sooner I’m stopping work.

    • I was thinking the same. I wonder where a motorbike would sit in all of this. Cheaper than a car, faster than a bicycle, able to get around some traffic.

  • Oh goody, more smug, baseless propaganda from the lycra nazis.

    Once again we get an arrogant cyclist preaching at us telling us how to live our lives, using an analysis so poor a grade 6 debate team would rip it apart in moments.

    I can’t take my kids to the dozen different places they need to be every week on a bike, I can’t get the shopping for a family of four home twice a week with a bike, I can’t take my family to visit friends on a bike. As others have pointed out the authors arguments are garbage, and reek of self-justification, and frankly I’m disappointed that Lifehacker allowed such a shoddy piece of propaganda to be published.

    The author is full of shit.

  • Myth busted: Needing to shower extra because of cycling. Shower when you arrive at work INSTEAD of before you leave home (not both) = no difference in time taken.
    I have a motorbike, a car, and a bike and I use them all (plus public transport) depending on weather, how much equipment I need to carry, how fast I need to get to work (e.g. if I slept in).
    I laughed at the responses above about driving being more comfortable. I find cycling the most enjoyable way of getting to work, and so do my friends. Cycling makes me alert and more resilient to workplace stress.
    Driving is stressful because of congestion and competition with other drivers. Motorcyling is even more stressful due to extra exposure. Public transport can be the most or the least stressful; at one extreme missing the bus, at the other extreme, dozing with a podcast playing through the headphones after a tough day’s work.
    For those who say a car would be much more comfortable, have they tried cycling to work, or is it an assumption?
    Finally, I don’t need to spend time and petrol going to a gym because I got my workout commuting on a bike. Some days I cruise slowly, others I ride hard for a good workout, it’s up to me.

  • Ok…… after reading the article…..
    How do you pick up the kids on the way home?
    How do you tell the motorist your stopping ?(there’s no brake light on a Bicycle)
    How do you travel effectively 40 +kilometers to and from work each day ? versus freeway?
    How do you transport tools to jobs if not an urban dwelling office worker ?
    I’m a Motorcyclist, Cyclist and a Driver and if you just want to justify this do it properly !
    Lets see the time is money relationship for this again with shopping for a family included, or more than one person or, lost work time from not having brake lights causing accident ?

    • > How do you pick up the kids on the way home?

      Most people who commute finish well after the kids are out of school. If the kids are young enough to need picked up, can they cycle accompanied by somebody with road sense or can they use dedicated cycle paths? If they’re too small to cycle the distance, how about a trailer or Trail-Gator type attachment?

      > How do you tell the motorist your stopping ?(there’s no brake light on a Bicycle)

      Damn, a fatal flaw. It’s a wonder how cyclists have managed without one for over a century.

      > How do you travel effectively 40 +kilometers to and from work each day ? versus freeway?

      Easy. I used to do that in the UK in a very hilly city (one side of the city to the other), in all weathers too (though 40 degree days weren’t a problem there!). I’ve done it here in Perth on a 45 degree day. Once. Never again.

      > How do you transport tools to jobs if not an urban dwelling office worker ?

      Depends on the tools. If they’re big and bulky then perhaps a bike isn’t appropriate. The article wasn’t advocating cycling as being suitable in all situations, it was presenting the difference in costs of using various transport methods.

      • I enjoyed your answer, it seems you agree with a few points .
        They were really rhetorical questions for the reader to consider.
        May you be fit and healthy for ever 🙂

  • This article is based on the false assumption that the time you spend at work earning money to cover the expenses of running a car could be spent doing other things. Most people with full time jobs don’t have this choice – they need to work for a fixed amount of time each working day. So all the article boils down to is a statement that cyclists will have more disposable income than motorists because of the costs associated with running a car.
    The thing is – there are opportunities to earn more money (get a commission, a promotion, change jobs, etc), you can’t ever earn more time though.

  • This is always going to be situation dependent.
    I commuted on a bike for over a year a few days a week into Melbourne CBD. It was quicker for me to ride, shower and make a coffee than public transport door to door plus I got quite fit being 15km’s each way. Driving wasn’t an option for me.

    So if it suits or doesn’t suit isn’t the issue IMO.
    Having the option is the issue and for the most part we have it good here in Melbourne.

  • Rather than criticise the article everyone should consider the intent of the report. Clearly for some people the trade off is worth it and for others it isn’t feasible. Take the time to do the numbers for yourself and your situation and decide if it is worth it for you. You might just be surprised at the result.

  • They say this, but it is a fact of life if you live in Australia. Public transport here sucks, but not because its just not good enough, but because not enough people live in condensed areas that public transport can effectivly service entire cities, hourly buses anyone? We need to build up around transport hubs and cut out the urban sprawl. Thats the only way Australian cities will ever be able to ditch personal transportation

  • Seems to be some bad logic here.

    Drivers aren’t actually losing time – they’re exchanging money (cost) for free time (benefit).

    You can’t just treat time and money as the same resource.

  • You know, I might’ve been willing to overlook some of the obvious defficiencies in this analysis (implied tragedy of the commons issue; cycling to work doesn’t remove the major fixed costs of owning a car; absence of consideration of carpooling; impact of cyclists on public transport capability).

    But for the utter arseholishness of the cyclist who – today being Ride to Work day – nearly cleaned me and several other pedestrians up by making a right-hand turn from the far left-hand (bus) lane at a red light into a crowd of us as we were crossing the road on a green pedestrian signal to get into the Hyde Park station for the aforementinoed Ride to Work day. So nuts to your appallingly one-eyed, hole-ridden, largely-empirical-research-free and otherwise not-very-good piece of research!

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