Commuting Kills

Every year we lose up to 10% of our electricity purely due to resistance during transmission. If you’ve ever wondered why a room-temperature superconductor is sought after, this is why. Thinking about superconductivity reminded me of the problem I have with companies who don’t allow telecommuting. The way I see it, remote-workers are like work-place superconductivity: Brain power and productivity arrive instantly where they’re needed with zero transmission cost.

I decided to do the math on what the health and environmental costs are related to commuting to work every year.

Moving people from home to work is surprisingly expensive in many ways. The average commute time by car in the United States is about 25 minutes each way. The average commute time by other means is also just over 25 minutes each way. [Source: US Census Bureau and wnyc.org data from census.gov] The average number of work days per year is 261. [Source: OPM.gov]

This gives us a total time spent commuting by car (or other means) per year of 217.5 hours, or 9 days. That’s 9 days (without sleeping) per year of your life you spend in a car, train, bus or other means of getting to work. That assumes you’re the average and not stuck on the I405 in California for 4 hours per day. I worked with a friend who had that commute.

If “sitting is the new smoking” [Source: Mayo Clinic and Dr James Levine], a phrase coined by Dr James Levine which has gained a groundswell of support of late, spending 9 waking days sitting in a car and pushing pedals, or on a bus or train per year has a profoundly detrimental impact on our health.

The number of people who drive to work alone is 105 million or about 88 percent of all car commuters. [Source: census.gov] So to make the math simple, lets just ignore the car-poolers. That gives us 50 minutes per day of drive time, times 261 working days, times 105 million commuters = 22,837,500,000 hours or 22.8 Billion hours of commuting time for Americans per year.

What does that translate to in terms of environmental cost? The average fuel consumption in the USA is 23.6 miles per gallon. [Source: Washington Post report on 2012 average MPG] Based on the numbers above, if we assume an average speed during commute of 35 miles per hour, the average commute distance becomes 14.5 miles each way or 29 miles per day. That gives us a total yearly miles commuted figure of 105 million lone-car commuters (the 88% majority), times 261 days per year, times 29 miles per day equals 794,745,000,000 miles or 794 billion total miles commuted per year. At 23.6 MPG that gives us 33,675,635,593 gallons or 33.7 billion gallons of fuel burned by commuters per year.

The environmental impact of burning gasoline goes beyond CO2 emissions and greenhouse effect. But lets just use CO2 to illustrate the point. Burning a gallon of gasoline produces 8,887 grams of CO2. [Source: EPA] This results in our yearly commute producing 299,275,373 metric tonnes or 299 million metric tonnes of CO2 every year from car commuting alone.

It’s easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of depressing environmental and social cost math on this issue. I’m tempted to translate the gallons of gasoline into oil barrels and compare it to field production figures and their environmental impact. If you’re an arithmetic and research geek, post it in the comments.

Consider again the 9 complete days per year we lose when commuting, the health cost and the 33 billion gallons of gasoline burned. What startles me is seeing companies like Yahoo, who are perceived as one of our leading employers, actually getting rid of telecommuting programs, citing company culture issues. Yahoo has 12,500 employees. [Source: Yahoo]

Google has a large number of open positions. But when visiting the “Telecommuting options” page, there are no jobs listed. [Help me Googlers, are you telecommuting? Post in the comments.]

In the software industry there are a large number of positions that are clearly candidates for remote working and telecommuting. Development, quality assurance and customer service to name a few. Our entire team works remotely and other leading companies like Basecamp and Automattic (makers of WordPress) are 100% remote working companies.

We have conversations and collaborate with other remote working businesses and they have introduced us to tools like Slack and UberConference that go a long way to add back the ‘company culture’ that not being physically in the same room can remove.

There is a common misconception that by adding ‘remote working’ to a position, companies can get cheap with other benefits because you get to ‘work from home’. We haven’t found that to be true in our sector. Our package is better than many commuter jobs and includes: 401k with matching contribution, platinum health-care, dental, 21 days of leave per year (The maximum in our sector), market-rate base salary and generous options package.

In view of the environmental, health and life cost of commuting to work, I’d suggest that all employers in the software sector give serious thought to creating more jobs that are 100% remote working and increase the amount of remote working allowed for on-site employees.

I’d also add that branding ‘remote working’ as work-from-home (WFH) which suggests it’s a perk to employees and purely emphasizes that aspect is unhelpful. Remote-working affords software workers quiet time they may not have at work and comes with the benefits, environmental, health and quality of life that I’ve described above.

Where remote working is not possible or undesirable, I’d recommend coming up with strong, rational and tangible reasons why an employee needs to be based on-site, rather than intangibles like culture, narrative or norms. The impact of not working remotely is profoundly negative in the ways I’ve illustrated.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear more about your working conditions or your thoughts as an employer or someone in human resources.

Mark Maunder – Wordfence Founder & CEO

Footnotes:

I’ve cited sources from Census.gov, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Personnel Management and others. All data quoted above is in the context of companies based in the United States and US data sources. I apologize to our international readers for being US centric, it just happens to be the best data I have available and we’re a US company. Please share your own data in the comments.

Some figures in this blog post startled me – the figure showing that 88% of car commuters are one person per car in particular. A strong argument for better public transportation if we can’t eliminate commuting.

A note on my comments regarding Yahoo: It’s not my intention to single Yahoo out as being environmentally unfriendly or disparage them in any other way. I think Ms. Mayer is a thought leader in many areas and the challenges Yahoo faces in human resources are significant. My intention is to promote dialogue and awareness on both sides of the argument for and against telecommuting.


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