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Calculating the Commute

I'm going to ask for your advice on this.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I can't seem to find a good commuting calculator to show the cost of driving to work versus taking mass transit. Can you recommend one for the D.C. area?

I'm starting a new commute from Reston to the District, versus Reston to Dulles, and would like to know what it might cost and how long each option might take.
Eric Hill

Very timely, right? Metro's ridership numbers this summer suggest that a lot of people are engaged in similar calculations, because of the gas prices.

There are many online calculators. I think the ones that would work best for us are locally relevant, simple and up to date on car costs. I've used three, for various reasons. They are:

-- Arlington 's Car-Free Diet calculator (You don't have to be commuting in Arlington to use it.)

-- Metro's calculator

The calculator at

Each is part of a site that offers lots of other information in planning local commutes. has the broadest range of information for our region.

The Web team at Arlington County Commuter Services recently found this calculator for drivers. The calculator seeks to show users that they might save the most money by moving closer to work, even if they pay more for housing.

I think I should do something on such calculators in my column, but wanted to ask for your comments and suggestions first.

By Robert Thomson  |  July 17, 2008; 11:34 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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I think too many people tend to think of short term costs instead of the big picture. For example, someone will compare the cost of a day's worth of Metro fares and Metro parking to the cost of gas to get from their house to their DC office plus the daily prorated amount of their monthly garage contract in DC.

The major flaw is that it costs a lot more to operate a car then just the gas you put into it. Sure, you might only need an oil change every 3,000 miles, tire rotations ever 5,000 miles, or brakes every 20,000 miles, but by driving less, you have to do these maintnance chores less times per year than you otherwise would. And also, you can get discounted insurance rates if you commute less miles in your car. The IRS factors this all into their per-mile operating cost reimbursement rates, and right now they say that it costs $0.585 per mile to operate a private auto on average. If you use that cost, then suddently the cost of Metro doesn't seem quite as bad.

The other thing often left out is the cost of time. Our employers do this when they set an hourly rate for us to be paid (salaried employees just take annual salary and divide by 2080 to get approximate hourly rate). So the question is how much more are we willing to spend to save some time. If it costs $10 a day more to drive than to take Metro for a particular commute, the college intern might rather save that $10 since they are only heading home to eat pizza and play video games, but the mother of 3 might think it is better for her to spend that $10 to spend extra time with her family. But that latter cost will generally not show up in any must be decided by the commuter after the monetary and time differences are presented.

Posted by: eh | July 17, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

I used the metro calculator, which includes the GSA rate for car cost per mile for both the drive option as well as drive to metro. For the "drive to work" part, it fills in the rate as 0.50. For the "drive to metro" it fills it in as 0.48.

One would think that it would sort of be cheating by metro to do this. Or maybe it's an error they need to fix.

But for my (very long) commute, it's less than half the price for me to take the metro even though it adds time. I'd be curious to see the math of their calculator, as previous estimates I've made were more like metro was 2/3 the price of the drive.

I find the metro commute is a consistently known amount of time (plus or minus 15 minutes), wheras the few times I've driven, an extra hour can be eaten up by traffic, easily. However, since I don't do that drive often, I haven't mapped out the ideal times to do so, or the alternate route strategies.

For me, I can spend that time on the metro reading and not stressing over traffic.

Posted by: DM | July 17, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Balance out the cost of your extra time commuting by public transit with any extra physical activity it includes.

When my kids were in daycare the cost of the extra time was high because day care had a drop-dead pick up time with a big extra charge.

But now that's over I can add 20-30 minutes to my commute time for a walk to/from the station and know that I'm saving the parking fee AND getting in some exercise.

Posted by: RoseG | July 18, 2008 6:16 AM | Report abuse

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