According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the vast majority of people in the states drive to work: more than four in every five residents. Of those four, there are those who drive alone and those who carpool. Those who drive to work by themselves make up 76.3% of the total population, while those who carpool make up 9.0%. Of course, these numbers differ by region and some cities — Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC in particular — stand out as having a higher percentage of residents choosing not to drive to work.
Why are these numbers so high? And why, simultaneously, are more and more people opting for alternative forms of transport? The pros and cons of driving, as well as the available alternatives, can shed light on both of these questions.
The number one factor causing people to drive to work is convenience. It is usually the quickest option and doesn’t require you to rely on a bus or subway schedule. The American Dream was often pictorially represented as a nuclear family with a house and a car, and for many people in the U.S., a car represents independence, since being able to quickly go wherever you need to be is incredibly convenient. Convenience is an especially important factor if your job requires you go to lots of different locations over the course of a month, a week or a day.
The kids have dance practice after school, but the eldest might want to go to Sam’s house after, the youngest might have a fit and need to come home, groceries need to be picked up, your partner has an unreliable work schedule and at some point you need to pick up a mother’s day card. Having a car and driving to work allow you the flexibility to change plans mid-route and get everywhere quickly.
Whether you want to take a nap at lunchtime or have somewhere set aside in private to cry just in case, having a car parked at work allows you to have some personal space if the need arises. Similarly, commuting by driving lets you have some time by yourself to sing to the radio, think about the day, talk to yourself or listen to an audiobook.
Especially if you live somewhere cold or wet, the comfort of driving to work in a heated car can be a major benefit. Likewise, if it is blistering hot outside, a car ride with AC can be much more appealing than a long walk on asphalt. Even on the most pleasant days, driving requires very little physical exertion, which, to some of us, is more appealing than hopping on the bike for a long ride first thing in the morning,
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, burning one gallon of gasoline in your car releases almost 9kg (~20 pounds) of CO2 gas out of the tailpipe. This is a major contributor to the CO2 level of 412 parts per million that we see in our atmosphere in 2019, in contrast to the 380 ppm we saw in 2005, according to NOAA. Climate scientists have linked CO2 and other greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere to rising temperatures, receding glaciers, rising sea levels and weather catastrophes all over the world.
Driving is, in most cases, the most expensive commuting option. The average price of gas in the U.S. is around $2.83/gallon, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that people here spend, on average, almost $2,000 a year on gasoline alone. Cars are also expensive in upfront cost, maintenance costs and insurance costs. While you might find a great deal on a used car, paying for oil changes, servicing and tire replacements can be expensive. Similarly, on average, US car-owners spend $1,500/year on auto insurance. The monetary cost of driving a car to work every day is a major downside for a lot of people.
Parking is either an issue or it isn’t. Maybe your work has a garage and you are guaranteed parking. Maybe you work in an urban area and spend fifteen minutes looking for parking every time you drive into work, wasting any time that driving might have otherwise saved you. Parking can be an additional monetary cost as well if you have to pay for a parking permit in a garage or on your work’s campus.
There are around six million car accidents in the states every year. Of the drivers who experienced a car accident last year, one in three are left with a permanent injury, and 40,000 died or had someone in their car die, likely making driving the most dangerous activity that many of us partake in daily. In addition to its danger, driving has a few indirect adverse health effects. First, are the health effects that come from breathing in polluted air, or air with high particulate matter, such as increased rates of asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Other adverse health effects of driving are related to sitting for extended periods, especially if you also sit a lot for work. These include back and spine injuries, slower metabolism and certain cardiovascular diseases.
For those who are able to walk to work, the feasibility depends heavily on distance. If you live more than a couple of miles from your job you can still consider walking one or both ways and structuring it into your routine: using the time to listen to an audiobook or podcast, call friends or family, or reflect on the day. If you do find yourself looking for a new place to live or a new job, consider making walkability a priority: it can make a huge difference to your quality of life and doesn’t cost any money (except maybe a good pair of walking shoes).
Again, for those who are able, cycling can be a good alternative, especially if your job is more than a mile or two away from your home. As with walking, you don’t have to worry as much about parking, so long as there is somewhere for you to lock your bike, and it’s a good way to get some exercise in. Cycling can be costly upfront, with the cost of the bike, helmet, panniers, and rain gear, but once you have the gear, maintenance is only around $100-$200 a year, depending on how much and how hard you ride.
Scooters and motorbikes have many of the benefits of driving (convenience, flexibility and some comfort) without all the cons. Scooters beat motorbikes on fuel efficiency — many scooter manufacturers brag their scooters get up to 120 mpg, while motorbikes often hover around 60 mpg — but scooters also go slower, usually topping out at 40 mph, so if your commute involves highway driving then a scooter might not be worth it. Upfront, a decent scooter or motorbike will probably cost around $2,500 but can soar much higher depending on the make and model.
Commuting by public transport often makes the most sense if you work in a city and your employer provides a bus pass. Some public transportation systems also offer good deals for monthly passes, which is good because a bus or subway ride can cost $3 each way, making it an expensive mode of transport to pay out of pocket (around $130/month). Some public transportation options also lend themselves well to splitting a commute between walking and bussing or biking and busing if there is a bike rack on the front.
Sometimes the best commute is no commute! More and more employers are recognizing the benefits of remote work or allowing employers flexible schedules to work from home part-time. This option saves you both time and money, assuming you are able to get your work done in a home office, a local café or library or your kitchen table.
Sometimes driving to work is our only option and there’s no getting around it. But often, we opt for driving due to convenience and comfort, choosing not to think about how expensive it is or the adverse health effects. When this is the case, consider experimenting by walking, cycling or taking public transport one day a week. If you have to rush to daycare to pick up kids on Thursdays, maybe Thursday isn’t the best day to forfeit the car. Maybe Fridays could be the day you try out the bike in the garage or try plugging into a podcast and walking. It might just be something you end up looking forward to each week.