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Environmental Self-Interest
July 3, 2011 Personal Finance

Once graduation hits and the students go home, I rarely head into my office. Many of my class-notes and books are there, and that is a true cost of not heading in, but I generally really dislike my commute for a whole host of reasons. “Pick up and move!” you might say to me. I’d refer you to this for my response. I thought you’d like to see a small calculation of how doing what is in my own self-interest may also turn out to be in the interest of others.

During the school year, I go to campus 6 times per week (at least). I live 13 miles from my door to the parking lot on campus. This means that each day I have a 26 mile commute. With walking time, and getting myself packed and ready, I spend conservatively 30 minutes each way for my commuting. In other words, each day I go to campus, I lose an hour of my time and I drive a total of 26 miles. Let’s make the poor assumption that the entire hour of driving time is wasted. It is typically not. On half of it I usually listen to an economics podcast or a book on tape. On the other half I listen to drive-time sports-radio to hear what folks are saying about the Sabres. I tend to enjoy both of those activities, but certainly not more than what I’d be doing if my body wasn’t strapped into a drivers’ seat of a car.

There are about 14 weeks of time from graduation to when I have to regularly be on campus, so taken together, if I work from home each day (and I tend to) I end up drivingĀ 2,184 fewer miles over the summer than I do over a similar 14 week period during the year (that’s the length of our semesters coincidentally). At roughly 30 miles per highway gallon in my 2004 Mazda 3, I save about 73 gallons of gas. This means that I am “saving” society about $51.80 of damages due to my driving, and I am saving myself at least $300 in combined gasoline costs and wear and tear on the car (probably closer to $500). This cost is nothing to scoff about – how many of you would be interested in saving $500 for doing nothing?

Further, I value my time far more than I value that money. Over 14 weeks of working from home, I save myself 84 hours of time in the car. That is 3.5 full days of my life less I will have to be in my car. That is about 10 full working-days worth of time (some of you have privately e-mailed me asking where I find the time to read all those ecology books). If I read 40 pages per hour in a standard book, without taking notes, then this time frees up time for me to read over 3,000 pages of books that I would not have been able to read otherwise. That isĀ something between 5 and 10 books.

If Rochester was serious about being more “green,” and it seems they are, there is no question that a better arrangement of class-times, lab times, advising resources, and the like could be arranged to mitigate how much commuting staff members would have to make. There are, of course, costs to doing such a thing that I am not in the mood to write about right now. Think about it this way: we have 20,000 employees at the U of R. If we were able to reduce every single employee’s need to come to campus by one day per week, or about 50 days per year, we’d reduce 1 million people-days of commuting per year. Insert your own cost-savings estimates for that here. Of course, we’d “eat” up some of those dividends by driving elsewhere on those days, but the savings are still likely to be real. I’m not necessarily advocating such a policy, but I would offer it as a comparison the costs and benefits of the myriad other “green” programs on campus.

"6" Comments
  1. On an only somewhat related note, I’ve always wondered why they closed off the parking lot behind the hospital so that you can’t drive through it to get from Kendrick Rd to Park Lot.

    When they closed it, I had to go through 2 extra traffic lights each way, every time I went to school (there and back twice per day, because the business school was on an even more ridiculous schedule). Thus, due to that change, I had to drive through the crosswalk next to the hospital with heavy pedestrian traffic composed almost entirely of the University’s hospital staff an extra 4 times per day. Is that really better than letting me drive across a parking lot?

    Fortunately, I found a service road for the maintenance workers that cut directly into the parking lot from the park on the other side. Of course, after I got used to using that to avoid the pedestrians the University blocked it with cones and boulders. Now I either drive through several more crosswalks on campus trying not to run over students, or I drive through crosswalks by the hospital trying not to hit nurses. Evidently a lot of students threw in the towel at some point and decided to leave their cars in the park itself, which works well since it’s closer to the campus than most of the actual parking lot is.

    What I want to know is, did anyone consider any of that before changing the traffic patterns? Also, if all this was part of their effort to go green by discouraging vehicle use, do they realize that it increases the opportunity cost of attending for anyone with a vehicle, and also that it discourages many students from participating in any extra-curricular events?

    I don’t need to know the cost-benefit breakdown, but someone should. Unfortunately, after 7 years there, I saw little evidence that anyone* was familiar with the concept.

    *Anyone with actual decision rights to do something.

  2. My uncle taught me to fish, which brings to mind the sage advice, “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will go to Cabelas and buy more fishing equipment.” Barack Obama variation on the same: “find out who is fishing and we’ll tax the boat, the fishing equipment, the fish and the fisherman instead of asking underprivileged kids to go without instruction in the public schools.”

    Anyway, the same uncle also said that Calvin Coolidge, a famous fisherman, was one of the best presidents we’ve ever had (maybe the best president) because he spent so much time fishing while in the White House. That kept him out of trouble, for the most part. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, thought he could micro-manage everything. And we know what happened to Jimmy Carter.

    As for wasting one’s time traveling to and from work, big corporations consider it wise not to waste the time of CEO’s and other big shots whom they are paying big salaries to make money for the company: thus they buy corporate jets so their top executives don’t have to fly on commercial schedules and who would waste a lot of expensive time getting frisked by the TSA.

    Just last week, however, the president zeroed in on the main reason why the federal government is spending a trillion and a half dollars more than it’s taking in: we’re giving “tax subsidies” to the manufacturers of corporate jets. All it takes to eliminate the deficit is to disallow those jet manufacturers to deduct their expenses from their gross revenues! The president got this idea while he and Michelle were flying to Martha’s Vineyard on Air Force One. If only those corporate CEO capitalist pigs would stop stealing the value of labor from the workers, we’d have this game licked.

    It is nice to know you’re going green, Wintercow.

  3. Rod is too easy on you. It is wrong to assume that by not driving you help the environment. You have to believe in an extremely convoluted argument to think you are polluting the air with carbon dioxide.

    Now, I have read that poison ivy grows faster in a CO2-rich environment, which may pose a hazard to rich and poor people hiking in the partly shaded edges of the woods. This is something that some government agency should get worried about.

    I am not worried about the combustion from anyone’s car, at least the CO2 and water part.

    If there are twenty thousand people working at the U of R, that makes me, a veteran productivity specialist salivate like a wolf before a black Angus. Normally, a big project would be somewhere that two thousand would be employed. Imagine cutting twenty percent of your maintenance cost, not to mention all the stuff they consume. That would be easy.

    Ten percent of twenty thousand people at seventy five thousand dollars a year, divided by three would be my bill, and would be payable as the services were delivered.

  4. Like its academic brethren, the University of Minnesota liberally dispenses enviro-friendly platitudes. Imagine my surprise when a spasm of institutional financial angst resulting in extensive lay-offs from the facilities management department meant that some employees that walked or biked to work were made redundant while others of the same classification that commuted 100+ miles each day were retained.

  5. I commute 45 minutes each way in my BMW 335i. 300 horsepower and 300 pound feet of torque along with a twisty road or two and commuting is an activity I look forward to. At my advanced age, life appears way to short to spend any of it in a car that does not provide its own entertainment value. I rarely turn the radio on.

    Yet, I am looking forward to the day when I can trade it in for a fully automated “automobile” and thus have much more time to listen to Econtalk.

  6. A news item in our local paper: a local bank gets congratulations for supporting “Bike Share” by buying five mountain bikes for anyone to ride around town. Like the greenies in your average European socialist republic, one can just grab a bike and ride it to the Muselix Coffeehouse, where free copies of The Nation and The New York Times are available, again, “for free.”

    The bank takes it as a given that this act of charity will evoke good feelings from everybody, including the Chamber of Commerce. Not a peep from anyone questioning the veracity of all this environmental B.S.

    I really did not want to let Wintercow off the hook. A suggestion for the commute: there are all kinds of gadgets you can plug into your car’s cigarette lighter outlet. Get a couple of these to make your ride more fun.

    Commuting itself is one of the unintended consequences of urban planning and the zoning laws that follow it. Under orthodox planning and zoning, you have your residential zones over here, your industrial zones over there and the commercial zones somewhere over in another direction. Thus if you live in suburbia or the country and you want to do anything at all, you have to get in your car and drive twenty minutes.

    Of course, the urban planners don’t want you to live in the country where your life can be serene. Instead, they now follow the English model, where the lord (county commissioners and other governmental officials) lives in the Manor, and the serfs (as in up from serfdom) live in their squalid huts in the village, where they can take advantage of the Bike Share program. Feudalism has its advantages, including the opportunity to save the planet by sacrificing your standard of living.

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