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As Offices Reopen in 2021, Millions of Americans Will Lose More Than $10,000 Commuting

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As offices reopen, millions of workers across the U.S. are bracing for a return to in-person work. A significant portion of the workforce will once again invest personal time in a daily commute instead of using that time to earn money, sleep in or complete other activities.

But after more than a year of working remotely, the sacrifice may seem too costly to workers. LendingTree researchers estimated the opportunity cost of commuting — or the lost value of the alternative, which is not commuting —  in the 100 largest U.S. cities.

Analysts found that full-time workers in the largest cities were spending nearly an hour a day commuting in 2019 — the latest available federal data. If that time was spent on the clock rather than in the car — as it was for many during the COVID-19 crisis — workers could increase their income by $5,679 a year on average. That opportunity cost was highest for Fremont, Calif., workers, at $15,065 annually.

Key findings

  • Full-time workers across the largest U.S. cities lose nearly an hour daily to commuting. The average round-trip commute in the 100 largest cities is 52 minutes, equating to an average annual opportunity cost of $5,679.
  • Fremont, Calif., has the costliest commute by far. The average round-trip commute time here is 73 minutes (third-longest time among the 100 cities), which equals an average annual opportunity cost of $15,065 — nearly $2,000 higher than the next city. San Francisco and Jersey City, N.J., take the next two spots.
  • Tulsa, Okla., has the shortest — and least costly — commute. The average round-trip commute here is 37 minutes, or an average annual opportunity cost of $3,255 — roughly $11,800 a year less than in Fremont. Toledo, Ohio, and Wichita, Kan., take the next two spots.

Methodology

LendingTree researchers analyzed data on the 100 largest U.S. cities by total workers to determine the opportunity cost of commuting.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey — the latest available federal data — researchers first compiled average commute times in the 100 cities. Analysts then estimated average hourly earnings in these cities by using Census Bureau data on median earnings for full-time workers, dividing that number by the estimated annual hours worked by full-time employees in that city, ranging from 1,805 to 2,065 hours a year.

Researchers then multiplied the average hourly earnings by total time spent commuting to estimate the opportunity cost of commuting. Researchers assumed 251 working days (there were 261 working days in 2019 but researchers accounted for two weeks of vacation).

Analysts then ranked the cities from highest to lowest based on the annual opportunity cost. That means residents of cities ranked higher have the potential to lose more money while commuting.

California cities have the most expensive commutes

Location plays a major role in determining the highest opportunity costs. Workers in coastal states stand to lose out the most after returning to the office, with five of the 10 most costly cities in California.

Fremont, Calif., the city with the highest opportunity cost, sits just across the bay from San Francisco, the city with the second-highest opportunity cost. But despite the proximity, it would require roughly 40 miles of driving each way if heading there via the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. If your commute — either from Fremont or San Francisco — requires this bridge, drivers also owe a toll that ranges as high as $7, adding to the highlighted opportunity cost (more on this later).

As with other large cities, population density and long commute times may be driven by higher earning potential. Eight of the 10 costliest commutes in the U.S. are in cities with the highest median earnings, starting in Fremont at $95,221 a year, followed by Irvine, Calif., at $90,979 and San Francisco at $90,475.

10 costliest commutes
Rank City Average round-trip commute (daily) Opportunity cost (annual)
1 Fremont, CA 73 minutes $15,065
2 San Francisco, CA 69 minutes  $13,067
3 Jersey City, NJ 76 minutes  $10,645
4 Washington, D.C. 63 minutes  $10,642
5 Arlington, VA 59 minutes  $10,427
6 New York, NY 83 minutes  $10,319
7 San Jose, CA 63 minutes  $9,852
8 Seattle, WA 57 minutes  $9,829
9 Irvine, CA 48 minutes  $9,566
10 Oakland, CA 69 minutes $9,214

Looking for a breakdown of how researchers calculated opportunity cost? Here’s an example using Fremont:

  • 36.4 (commute time) x 2 (to make it round trip) / 60 minutes = 1.21 (total hours commuting)
  • 1.21 x $49.47* (hourly wage, rounded) = $60.02** (daily cost of commute)
  • $60.02 x 251 (workdays) = $15,065 annual opportunity cost

* Hourly wages have been rounded but the **daily cost of commuting was calculated from raw values.

As shown above, drivers in six U.S. cities face an average of more than $10,000 a year in opportunity costs because of their commutes. Their combined workforce population totals 5,876,338. Of those cities, New York has by far the largest number of workers who would be impacted: 4,427,251.

Cities with least expensive commutes mostly in South, Midwest

Nine of the 10 cities with the lowest opportunity cost are in the South and Midwest. The only city outside of those regions is Tucson, Ariz., which is in the West.

As with the costliest cities, earnings are a significant factor here. Of the least costly commutes on the list, half of them landed in the bottom 10 for lowest median earnings: El Paso, Texas; Toledo, Ohio; Cleveland; Norfolk, Va.; and Tucson, Ariz.

10 least costly commutes
Rank City Average round-trip commute (daily) Opportunity cost (annual)
1 Tulsa, OK 37 minutes $3,255
2 Toledo, OH 40 minutes  $3,348
3 Wichita, KS 38 minutes  $3,431
4 Norfolk, VA 44 minutes  $3,461
5 Corpus Christi, TX 40 minutes  $3,461
6 El Paso, TX 47 minutes  $3,650
7 Lincoln, NE 37 minutes  $3,672
8 Memphis, TN 44 minutes  $3,757
9 Tucson, AZ 45 minutes  $3,860
10 Cleveland, OH 46 minutes  $3,868

El Paso, Texas, has the third-lowest median earnings out of the 100 U.S. cities examined, with an annual median income of $35,917. Toledo, Ohio, was fifth-lowest at $37,148, just behind Cleveland at $37,272. The low median earnings, mixed with shorter round-trip commutes, means the opportunity cost is substantially lower.

Full rankings

How to calculate the real cost of commuting

To be clear: The formula that LendingTree researchers used to calculate opportunity cost is conservative. While LendingTree’s research team focused on the income-earning potential that’s sacrificed during commutes, analysts didn’t account for other factors. When you’re calculating the cost to commute, you’ll need to include these expenses:

  • Gas
  • Tolls
  • Vehicle maintenance
  • Parking passes and fees
  • Vehicle depreciation

For help calculating the cost of your commute, the University of California, Santa Barbara, offers the Commuter Cost Calculator, which includes daily mileage and gas prices in its estimation.

If your cost to commute is too high, you could look into refinancing your car loan to save money. You’ll first want to make sure that refinancing is right for you.

6 ways to cut your commuting costs

You might not be able to skip the commute altogether, but there are a handful of ways drivers can reduce gas costs, cut back on vehicle wear-and-tear and potentially reduce their lost time:

  • Take public transportation: Using public transportation means saving on gas — and maybe even getting some work done on the way to the office. Just be sure to follow safety precautions, which may include wearing a mask and social distancing. If you’re not already contributing to a commuter benefits account, ask your boss if you can use part of your income to cover the costs of trains, buses, tolls and parking. Commuter benefits can reduce your taxable income and potentially save you as much as 40% on your transit cost.
  • Ride a bike or scooter, or walk to work: Even if it’s just a few days a week, switching to two wheels or two legs can be a nice change of pace. Bikes are a convenient mode of transportation on traffic-congested streets, but it’s just one of several good alternatives that can save you money on gas and help you get some physical activity.
  • Work some days remote: Talk to your manager about creating a hybrid schedule. This could include attending in-person meetings on certain days but staying home other days to avoid the commute. A hybrid schedule can not only save you time and money, but it can also increase your productivity. Your manager may find that more valuable than increasing your face time.
  • Trade in for a commuter car: Finding a better car for your commute could save you money on gas and maintenance. Consider shopping for a more fuel-efficient vehicle or one that uses an alternative fuel source. Sedans can be a good option when you’re looking for a low price tag and higher fuel efficiency.
  • Get perks for gas: Even if you can’t cut back on driving miles, you can reduce your losses. A rewards credit card, including cashback credit cards, can help you earn money or points when you pay for gas. You can also try using a mobile app to help you find the best gas prices on your route, or join a warehouse club, like Costco or Sam’s Club, for discounted prices.
  • Find a remote job: A record-high number of employees quit their jobs in April 2021, with nearly 40% of employees saying they would consider quitting if forced to return to the office, according to a Bloomberg survey. While it may seem extreme, finding a new employer that allows full-time, remote work may be the only true alternative to a long and costly commute.
 

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