The Real Cost of Commuting (And What To Do About It)

“Living’s mostly wasting time.”  -Townes Van Zandt

I know that a lot of people don’t understand my “obsession” with the bicycle.  They find it peculiar because they don’t understand what the bike gives me in exchange for what it asks of me.  Interestingly, the people who least understand often have another similar obsession…their cars.

So I sometimes ask these nice people if they know how much their cars have cost them.  If they’re really passionate car people, I usually get defiance in return.   They don’t care.  They can afford it.   It’s better than riding a bike like a poor person or a child or a spandex (it’s lycra but they always say spandex) clad elitist.  Yada, yada, yada.

Most people, though, simply don’t know what it costs to own and drive a car.  If they did, I suspect a lot of them would make some changes, so maybe not knowing is a defense mechanism of sorts.   Maybe it’s what keeps the tears at bay.

Time spent commuting is a sunk cost. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
Bike + train saves money and reduces stress, but can still be a time sink.
This is not a commute.  This is pure joy.  This is living.

For what it’s worth, owning a car costs a king’s ransom.  Don’t believe me?   Using numbers provided by the AAA, if you’re married and own two cars most of your adult life, it’s one million dollars out the door.  This is not an investment, either, no matter what the nice young man or woman at the dealership tells you.

But even worse than the financial burden car ownership imposes  is the inevitable decline in your quality of life that is a non-negotiable part of the deal.   Most of us already know motoring is not good for our health.  Sitting in a car is a sedentary activity.  It’s also very stressful.  They call it road rage for a reason.

Yeah, right.

That’s all bad enough, but I’m not done.   .  According to the nice folks at,  it turns out that a lot of us are literally wasting years of our lives commuting.   It’s not just  cities like LA and Houston.  It’s pretty much everywhere of any size.  Let’s say you live in Denver.  Who wouldn’t want to live there?   Better get their soon, though.   Denver residents waste  427 days of their lives commuting.  Bummer.

So maybe you’re thinking that this is unavoidable.  It’s not.  That’s just what people who feel trapped tell themselves to make the medicine go down a little easier.  Of course it’s avoidable.  You may have to make some trade offs to get there, but in the end it’s all a matter of what that commuting time is worth to you and how you might use it if you weren’t using it to sit on a freeway and inch forward at five miles an hour while raging that the other lanes are all moving faster than yours.

Ames is commute-free, bike friendly, economically vibrant and less than an hour from DSM International Airport.

I’m not of a mind to tell anyone else what to do.  How you choose to live your life is up to you.   That said, if I was twenty-something and just starting out, here’s what I would do.  I would move to a college town in either the Midwest or the Rockies.  College towns in this part of the world are typically affordable.  They have good bicycle infrastructure and robust economies.   Primary jobs are being created in these places…often the kind of tech jobs bigger cities dream of.   They’re not so large that you can’t bicycle everywhere.

The combination of these factors make them easy places to achieve financial balance.  Because they’re smaller, you can get from end to end very quickly.  Quality of life is generally very good.

If I was worried about having access to an airport, I’d find a college town close to a big city (Ames,  Lawrence, Lincoln, Bloomington, West Lafayette, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Provo, Fort Collins) or one that’s big enough in its own right to have  an airport (Boise, Madison, Missoula) that could get me to the big city in one hop. I’d move to one of these places and choose to live car free.  I’d pocket the million dollar dividend and reclaim the 1-2 years of my commuting life and call it even…

…but that’s just me.




Some of you already know this, but I get around.  I’ve ridden my bicycle through the heart of cities as large and diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle.  I’ve crossed rivers with names like Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Monongahela.  I’ve climbed out of canyons and cycled through countless small towns and across miles and miles of countryside.  Most places are navigable, at least to some degree. Few are exceptional.   None are Missoula.

Lots of places have signs, but in Missoula they actually seem to mean it.

I came to this storied seat of education on the far side of Montana expecting to leave just a little disappointed.  Missoula sounded too good to be true.  It has serious cred as an outdoor town…kind of like so many other places that were less than perfect when it came to actually turning my crank.  I’ve heard it all before and so this time I listened to my jaded heart and tempered my expectations.  But Missoula didn’t play along and that’s a good thing.  Missoula blew me away.

This bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street is the most ingenious piece of bicycle infrastructure I’ve seen in the US.
It was early and not much was open yet, but it’s hard to miss all that bicycle parking.
Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork. There’s a hiking trail up to the M on the mountain as well.  It looked crowded from down below.
Protected bike lanes on Higgins – Photo: Google Streetview
The Higgins underpass along the Kim Williams Trail is wide and easy to navigate.
Love locks on the footbridge to Albertson’s.  I saw this on the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh as well.

This is without a doubt the best place I’ve ever ridden a bicycle. There is no honorable mention I can think of.  This city is that far ahead of the other places I’ve cycled.  It’s the gold standard, the place against which I will now measure all other places.  It is the one and only city in Pedalfree’s Cycling Hall of Fame.

So what did I like?   Connectivity, for one thing.  I felt like I could go anywhere here by bike.   Crossing the Clark Fork was no big deal.  There’s a foot bridge that sneaks up behind the Albertson’s grocery store.  It’s full of padlocks and inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. There’s also this incredibly pragmatic bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street.  I call it America’s Hovenring.  There are trails here and there and everywhere.

Missoula is an active place and so it seemed as though all of those trails were clogged with walkers and joggers.  Instead of weaving through the crowds, I hit the streets.   I cruised the protected bike lanes along Higgins Street downtown and passed a law enforcement officer. We exchanged greetings, which was easy to do since he was also on a bicycle.  Everywhere I went, motorists were kind and courteous.  They still respect crosswalks in Missoula.

It might seem like a small thing, but I passed countless bikes in front of businesses here.  Few, if any, were locked.   Apparently there’s no need.   Helmets are optional, just like in Holland.  Speeds are low for both bikes and cars.  The folks I saw were not training for next weekend’s gran fondo.  They were just going about their daily lives on bicycles.

It seems as though the total community is engaged.  There’s a local organization called Missoula In Motion that works with employers to encourage people to commute sustainably.  They hold a commuter challenge and have a leaderboard on their website where companies compete with each other. It reminds me of my time in Denver when RTD, the local transit organization, worked with employers to get people out of their cars and clean up what was then the country’s worst air pollution.

Of all the places I’ve been, I think Missoula would be the easiest to live without a car.  The town itself is relatively compact.  There’s free bus service everywhere, even to the airport.  Roads are being redesigned in a way that incorporates Vision Zero principles.  One major exit off of Interstate 90 is a roundabout with no stoplights.  Another is under construction at present.

Not everything is rosy here.   As I understand it, air pollution is a serious problem in the winter.   The lay of the land suggests that this is the case, as Missoula sits in a relatively tight little valley the likes of which typically produces temperature inversions.  Growth is also creating sprawl outside of the city limits.  People want to be here and it’s bustling.  I saw this same thing destroy Boulder, and so I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Missoula can work through it.

We weren’t even going to stop here.  It was just a fluke that we did…a matter of making time work in terms of other stops further on down the road.   I’m glad we did.   It was serendipity.   I can honestly say that Missoula is in a class by itself when it comes to bicycle friendly…at least from my perspective.  I can’t wait to come back.