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Updated: September 1, 2020

Americans are saving billions by not commuting

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper A surface parking lot in downtown Hartford, 10 Ford St., operated by LAZ Parking.

The pandemic lockdown has killed the work commute. And as the number of miles people travel every day has collapsed, commuters have saved themselves billions of dollars.

In June, Americans traveled nearly 37 billion -- yes, billion -- fewer miles than in the same month last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Usually, the number of miles traveled peaks in the summer when people go on vacation, but of course this summer is quite different.

That's translating to a lot of cost savings: Workers who once commuted by car but now work from home are saving a total of $758 million per day, according to research from freelancing platform Upwork. Over the months since the pandemic hit the US, that figure amounts to a cumulative $90 billion.

The savings comprise gas, car maintenance and repairs, as well as the costs that driving imposes on society, such as congestion and polluting, said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork.

But the biggest factor in this calculation is time. It's hard to put a number on the literal value of your time, but the Department of Transportation provides an estimate, Ozimek noted: Every hour of commuting by car costs Americans $12.50.

That adds up, given Americans' long commutes. Americans spent an average of 54.2 minutes commuting daily in 2018, according to Ozimek. Commute times have been rising for decades, and big job markets in high-cost and high-commute metropolitan areas like New York or the San Francisco Bay Area aren't helping to bring those averages down.

Underscoring this point further is a look at cities where workers would most benefit from working remotely in the long term: East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a commuter town that's in close enough reach to both the New York City metro area and Philadelphia, stands to see the biggest time gain for remote work, followed by New York-Newark-Jersey City and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, according to the Upwork report.

"I definitely think we'll see a migration from higher cost of living to lower cost of living," Ozimek said.

Still, continued working from home is bad for the local economies supporting former office environments, as the worker who stays home doesn't pay for transportation, morning coffee, lunch or other conveniences that are in the vicinity of the office. This puts jobs in the infrastructure that supports offices at risk.

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