Work and How to Get There: Alternatives to the Car


Commuting … almost everybody does it.  We love to hate this aspect of modern life, but the daily back-and-forth doesn’t necessarily have to be a burden.  At moss, we’ve explored a lot of alternatives to the traditional stuck-in-traffic mode.  In honor of the upcoming Bike Commuter Challenge, lets explore the modern commute and some variations on the theme!

What you already knew: Americans Mostly Drive to Work

City (or city adjacent) living can be a major “driver” of the commute.  According to a 2013 study, the Chicagoland average travel time is 31 minutes but 13 percent of those commuters spend more than an hour (one way) in their trek to work.  That’s the highest number in the midwest and desirable to no one.

Plus those commute times are averaged between workers (some daily commutes are worse than others) and between trips (some DAYS are worse than others).  Chicago is ranked 7th in the nation for unpredictable drive times.  We aren’t quite as badly off as Washington, DC where drivers “should budget almost three hours to complete a high-priority trip that would take only 30 minutes in light traffic.”  Ugh!

Check out this fascinating interactive map created by Storymaps to see how Americans commute near you, and in other parts of the country.  We’ve focused on the greater Chicago area in these screen shots.

Commute Times

The average commute time in our Zip code is 35.5 minutes but only 40 percent of commuters in this area drive (not surprising considering the abundance of alternative methods around us).  47.2 percent take public transit and 4.9 percent bike or walk to work.

Everyone Seems to Hate It

We’re not even going to dignify this one with a paragraph … If you need evidence, click a link below:

Time Magazine: 10 Things Your Commute Does To Your Body

Slate: Your Commute is Killing You

Daily Mail: The Secret to Happiness: DON’T Commute

MarketWatch: 5 ways Commuting Ruins Your Life

Alternate Commute Methods

When it comes to finding alternatives to driving, the possibilities are many.  That’s not so say that its always easy and some people certainly have it easier than others, demographics affect this quality of life issue like so many others. Depending on the distance you travel and the local geography and infrastructure you may find it more or less easy to find access to public transit systems or safely get out of your car.  Still, the odds are that there is SOME method you can put to the test.

The Water’s Fine.  Come on in!

Reasons why you should try it hardly need mentioning!  Climbing out from behind the steering wheel can give you access to more fresh air and exercise on a bike or afford a chance for closed eyes or extra reading time while you let someone else get you to the office.

Plus, modern technology has made all of this infinitely easier and more predictable.  Carrying a paper bus schedule for every possible route isn’t necessary when a quick swipe of a mouse or smartphone can pull up google maps with suggestions for multiple routes, customized for arrival or departure times or simply showing every possibility within a certain time window.

google maps

Remember, this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing concept.  Getting out of (or sharing ) your car even once a week is a good start and a notable improvement.  Try to think outside the box (car) in your trip planning possibilities.  Consider this:

  • If you need your car to get from A to B to C, consider offering a lift to a coworker.  Certainly work on carpooling for any workday multiple-person meetings!
  • Park-and-ride and vanpool pickup sites can help you split the difference if you don’t have access to transit lines from your home.
  • Now that the Divvy program is up and running, you don’t need to buy, store or repair a bike or your own in order to roll from here to there!

ASK what your Company can do for you

Sorry, JFK, but this is one area where we really should me making demands on society!  The location and facilities of a work place have a big impact on how its team can get to and fro.  Choosing to locate an office or a corporate headquarters out in the suburban hinterland can doom employees to commuting by car.   Picking a location near functional transit routes, providing changing / showering facilities on site, and encouraging alternate transit modes with financial incentives are all becoming more common as employers consider their impact on the environment and their employees’ health.

How moss rolls

We have a very alternate-commute friendly office here at the moss HQ.  Bikes are parked just inside the door and we’re a block and a half from the nearest Brownline station, slightly less from the nearest Divvy stand.  Our moss teams runs the gammut of commute options quite nicely.

Both Chris and Lety split their transit between driving (in inclement weather) and biking.  Lety lives close enough to roll over in work attire but Chris, who rides traverses the entire city from south to north and back on his daily commute arrives fully kitted out in cycle gear, showers in the office bathroom and re-emerges ready for the work day and ready to go!

Emily walks or catches a city bus to the office for writing coordination.

Della rides the Brown line in the mornings (book in hand) and walks home in the evenings.

Matt and Laura stroll over from the residential portion of the HQ with steaming coffee.

We also default to hopping on bikes to get to and from client meetings and building site visits as we have documented in How we Operate: Field Measuring in Existing Buildings.

Is Commuting a Basic Human Instinct, Though?

In 1994, a physicist named Cesare Marchetti proposed that people PREFER to travel about an hour (there AND back) every day and that’s why the statistics always play out as they do.  He noted that the villages of ancient Greece were laid out with territories accessible by about a half hour of walking from the center to the edge.  Modern commuters in their cars still average a 30 minute one way trip.  He noted that people tended to travel 30 minutes to work even if they could change transit modes (drive rather than walk) and get there faster.  Check out this PerSquareMile post for more!

The MIT Technology Review backs up that idea with data gathered from mobile phone data.  Its been hard to back up the idea with facts about commute times in different places since the studies of different commutes were always carried out differently but now using cell phone data, a group led by Kevin Kung collected data on the timestamps and locations of calls placed by users in Boston, Portugal and the Ivory Coast.  Their findings seem to confirm the Marchetti principle – regardless of how far people were traveling and how they got back and forth, the average daily travel time stayed constant at about an hour!

Maybe it is a universal truth!  How do you commute and how long does it take you?  Let us know in the comments!