New NRDC Study: Commuters Can Save Money and Cut Pollution


My friend Megan, who lives in a suburban neighborhood a few miles from my home, took a new job last year and, lo and behold, her office is right next door to mine in downtown Washington, D.C. I remarked that it seemed odd that we never bump into each other on the daily commute. That’s because Megan fights traffic driving to work every day instead of riding the Metro commuter train as I do. When I asked why, she explained that commuting by car is more convenient and cost-effective because she can park for free at her office. If Megan were to take Metro, she’d have to drive a couple miles to the nearest transit station and pay for parking, then walk a few blocks from the downtown station to the office. Driving seemed to save her time and money.

I was perplexed by her logic. Then again, I live just a short walk to the train station so it’s definitely more convenient and cost-effective for me to ride the rails rather than slog through rush hour. Megan acknowledged that sometimes the drive home after work can take twice as long as the train ride, plus she pays for fuel and also wear and tear on her car—including replacing her brakes more often than ever. By the end of our chat, she was re-thinking the perceived benefits of commuting by car.

That conversation over pizza and beer was the impetus for a study I produced at NRDC.

You see, all across the country a shift is taking place. Increasingly, Americans are choosing to live in walkable communities with convenient housing, offering more transportation choices that allow them to live closer to their jobs, and shops and schools, rather than stuck in traffic. Along with the personal freedom these communities provide, it’s exactly the kind of growth our country needs to cut pollution, save money and create a vibrant quality of life.

But for many Americans, whether they live near or far from metropolitan areas, commuting for work is costing them time and money.

NRDC's new study finds that by integrating carpooling, public transit or telecommuting into their daily commutes, Americans could save more than $1,800 annually. By adopting the strategies contained in the report, NRDC estimates that commuters can reduce their total vehicle miles traveled by 10% to 50%.

Driving Commuter Choice in America, Expanding Transportation Choices Can Reduce Congestion, Save Money and Cut Pollution found that the four types of commuters in America—city, suburban, rural and town, and non-commuters—could see the greatest amount of savings between $400-$1,800 dollars if they switched to carpooling every day. Transit savings range from nearly $450-$600 annually.

With gas prices on the rise, many commuters are already turning to travel modes like public transportation, as attested by ridership on local buses and trains rising to record levels not seen since the 1950s. One of the fastest, cheapest ways to solve the problem of high gas prices and to break our nation’s addiction to oil is by investing in clean, efficient modes of transit that let Americans go farther on a gallon of gas—or no gas at all.

According to NRDC's analysis, if 25% of Americans adopted transit or other alternatives to driving for their daily commute, the United States could reduce transportation fuel use by billions of gallons per year and save consumers tens of billions of dollars in transportation spending each year. Many communities also would see less congestion in large urban areas, less need for new infrastructure, and less wear and tear on roads, leading to lower infrastructure maintenance costs.

Report recommendations include: 

  • Increase transit use: Increasing transit round-trip work commutes by four days (or eight trips) each month can reduce driving costs by 14% to 26%.
  • Increase carpooling: Switching to carpooling 20 days per month reduces the number of driving trips and vehicle miles traveled, and can reduce driving costs by about 40% to 50%.
  • Increase trip-chaining: Use trip-chaining (mostly by planning trips in advance) for errands, appointments, etc. Reducing non-work trips by 75% per month could reduce driving costs by 10% to 15%.
  • Increase telecommuting: Telecommuting four days each month could reduce driving costs by up to 14%. Even a modest expansion of telecommuting could save Americans a total of $1.9 billion annually and reduce oil demand by 20 million barrels of oil per year. 

NRDC’s report recommends policy solutions to invest in expanding transportation choices which would allow more Americans to enjoy the freedom of being able to travel shorter distances or less often by car.

But for the vast majority of people, commuting usually comes down to cost and convenience. If it's free to park at an office complex or it takes longer to get to work by taking a circuitous bus stop than to drive there directly, more people will have little choice but to take a car. Which is all the more reason to expand transportation choices to make it more convenient to commute by transit or to carpool or telework.

By providing better transportation solutions and building more vibrant, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods—fostering good growth over gridlock—we can make our communities more sustainable and our commutes more convenient.

Read the full report here.

Great coverage of the study by streetsblog.