Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cost of my commute

Andrew Sullivan has been posting commentary about riding a bike versus driving to work. I looked at the responses in his latest post on the topic, and felt an urge to state something plain about one commentator:
What about the opportunity costs of the extra time a bike commuter spends to get to work?  My 15-mile car commute takes 25-30 minutes.  To ride that same distance, it would take me at the very least 1.5-2 hours, each way. My round trip commute could go from one to four hours.  All those extra hours are ones I could have spent working - or you know, doing anything besides commuting.
This is a problem of mixed apples-and-oranges. The commentator obviously lives at a greater distance to work than would be useful to bike the whole way. Placing a single response to this issue is nonsensical. It's like me making the argument that I could cycle from Ann Arbor to Detroit every day, but that would create a huge opportunity cost for me.

Well, duh. In my example, I have multiple options: drive (if I owned a car), take AmTrak, or carpool. Note that none of these options actually change the distance I need to commute to make bike commuting competitive, but at least I'm not mixing apples and oranges. If I wanted to only have a barrel of apples (i.e., compare the costs and benefits of cycling against driving), I need to put things into a perspective that makes sense: by either moving the location of my job or the location of my domicile (i.e., live closer to where I work). This option isn't available to many people who have already made the decision to subsidize their living standard with a higher travel cost (i.e, people who wanted to live in a larger house way outside of the city compared to living in a smaller apartment in the city), and since it's not available to these people, they shouldn't be commenting as if their situation is equivalent. It just plain isn't.

Now the other comment was:
I'm all for being green and fit. Unfortunately though, the whole concept of biking to work is nonsense. I've worked with about 1000 people in my life and I have known 1 person who regularly biked to work. I can't bike to work because biking results in my body sweating, thus offsetting the purpose of my morning shower. So next time we calculate the cost of biking, can we factor in the cost of smelling like sweat all day and getting fired because no one wants to sit within 15 feet of you?
My response to this is that one could find a place to take a shower near to where one works. If this isn't possible, then you are in a situation in which you are comparing apples with kumquats. It's hot and humid today in Ann Arbor (likely going to be another 90F/90%humidity day), and I biked my 4 miles this morning, headed to the gym to take a shower, and then came to the office. (No, I didn't take a shower before leaving home; that would have been pointless in the overall picture.) I am a person who sweats quite liberally at any provocation (cycling in the Michigan winters creates the potential problem of my sweat freezing when I stop), but I haven't had problems with "smelling like sweat all day and getting fired" because I have access to shower facilities. If you don't have access to shower facilities, this is a separate issue than the costs of biking versus driving in general, since it is a variable that is independent of either. I could easily make an analogous argument that I can't drive to work in in Tokyo because I can't find a place to park near where I work, and the extra time it takes for me to walk from the parking lot to work will make me late, "so can we factor in the cost of walking from the distant parking lot and getting fired because I will likely be late to work?"

When couched in these latter terms, I would imagine that the reasons why the argument is a non-generalizable one will be more clear: the availability of showers (or the willingness to take one outside of one's home and closer to one's work) is not a general problem that people have. Therefore, it's not a comparable cost of biking and driving in general.

So the next time someone says that they are "all for biking, but..." examine the premises of their arguments. Sometimes (often in my experience) they are comparing apples with non-apples, and as tasty as these non-apple fruit may be, their tastiness doesn't make them an equivalent fruit for comparison.


Mr Fahrenheit said...

I have to admit that my biggest excuse (and the reason I drove today) is that some mornings i'm just too tired to get on the bike and cycle. It's not much of a reason but it generally accounts for all of my failed rides

Umlud said...

Well, I admit that the reason I cycle is because I don't have a car and live 4 miles from the U. Therefore, if I'm feeling more run-down than a large mug of coffee can fix, I just cycle slowly into town.

Occasionally, I get a ZipCar, which is $8 or $9 per hour (depending on the car), which is an additional reason why I don't drive around town too often.