How Much Would Most People Pay For a Shorter Commute?

chart.gif(Data: IBM’s CPI)

As Washington conventional wisdom has it,
raising gas taxes or creating a vehicle miles traveled tax to pay for
transportation is impossible during the current recession. After all,
who would want to squeeze cash-strapped commuters during tough economic

As it turns out, the public is very willing to pay for the
shorter commuting times that result from less traffic — and they’re
willing to pay top dollar, as IBM’s new Commuter Pain Index (CPI) shows.

asked what value they would place on every 15 minutes sliced from their
daily commute, 36.5 percent of CPI respondents said between $10 and
$20. That’s about five times the recent trading price of a ton of carbon emissions on the nation’s climate-change exchanges.

the price of a shorter commute was higher in more congested cities. In
Los Angeles, 22 percent of residents said every 15 minutes not spent en route to work would be worth between $31 and $40 — or more than $100 per hour.

does the data mean? For one thing, those who fear that voters would
revolt if asked to pay more for a more efficient, less congested
transport network shouldn’t let that stop policy-making. As every
successful politician knows (and the president is re-learning on health care), messaging is the key to winning over the public.

other words, Democrats who feign unwillingness to subject voters to
higher gas taxes are ignoring their ability to control the message.
When a greater contribution to transportation is pitched as a way to shorten commutes and give workers more free time, the prospect becomes more desirable.

it’s not that lawmakers don’t know how to decrease congestion,
particularly in the urban areas that were polled to produce the CPI.
Reducing the number of car trips and lowering demand during peak travel
times are proven to be a cheaper and more effective method of battling congestion than expanding highway capacity.

Is it time to nickname the White House’s Sustainable Communities Initiative the "Shorter Commutes Initiative"?

  • While I think this is very insightful, I tend to think this is the CPI respondents saying they like their current mode (i.e. car) and are willing to pay top dollar to continue to use it with less headache.

    I’d like to believe that this means that people would pay a bit more to have better transit option that would shorten their commute (i.e. more bus, train service). However, I think this is more I bet if I pay $10, the guy next to me on the road won’t so there is one less car on the road. If I pay $15, the guy on my other side won’t so there are now two more spots for me on the road.

    The reason I think this is because people already can pay a more up front cost for a house that isn’t in the far flung suburb (I’m think of the bay area as an example) but they don’t. They’ll purchase the $400k home in Tracy and commute 2+ hrs into the bay area without truly taking transportation time/money into account.

    But then again, maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong angle.

  • The 2009 “Moving Cooler Report” states that moving to European level gas taxes, “starting at $2.40 a gallon gas tax in 2015 and increasing to $5.00 a gallon in 2050 could result in a 28% reduction in driving GHG emissions.” [ULI’s Moving Cooler, pg 80]. Daily US commutes use up about 1 gallon of gas.

    Here’s a look at how low US gas prices (compared to the rest of the world) encourage driving:

    I think it’s very interesting to see this argument being made that there is political will to “price out driving.” Politically we are definitely seeing the opposite sentiment, where we had Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton “pandering” about keeping gas prices low during her campaign. I’ve done some primary research on willingness of folks to pay more, and I’d say that the topic is extremely nuanced, but there’s a chance of bringing about political will by making a fair pro/con argument and explaining the “Tragedy of the Commons.” In general, policymakers are not asking folks to undertake any inconvenience to protect the climate (or reduce congestion).

  • ZA

    @ Steve Rainey – while I completely support an explicit gas tax as the most effective means of decreasing transportation sector emissions, I don’t think a 28% reduction in GHG emissions will be achieved in the US by a gas tax alone.

    Europe can achieve that because there are often (not always) convenient alternatives in mass transit built on the ruins of war. The US, by comparison, has all of its original legacy infrastructure, and when selectively ruining areas for subsequent development (e.g. minority neighborhoods, undervalued farmland, ‘wilderness’), opted for highways, not more-efficient systems.

    Earmarking gas taxes to immediate transit improvements is imperative, and the bus and bicycle seem the most relevant transition technologies available, for the infrastructure we have.

  • @ZA – Certainly for suburban commutes (the majority in the Bay Area), carpooling or vanpooling is the most likely alternative. The challenge for suburban transit is that it’s difficult to find “thick” commute vectors to serve.

    I am optimistic that over the medium term (3-4 years) about new forms of more flexible ridesharing such as Avego (uses the iPhone). There have been 15 failed flexible ridesharing pilots in the past, but penetration of GPS enabled smartphones will be increasing rapidly over the next few years. The latest flexible ridesharing ideas are pretty different than previous attempts. I’ve found that there are a large number of folks who are interested in ridesharing 3 rather than 5 days per week, so they need much more flexibility than a traditional permanent carpool arrangement can offer.

    So, nothing currently works very well for suburban commute alternatives, but that surely just means that we need to come up with something better than what we’ve used in the past. That doesn’t mean that nothing will ever work. is a good web site that tracks carpooling innovations.

    I can’t quote Moving Cooler tonite because I’m shutting down, but I think one main point is that transit investments aren’t super effective, whereas pricing is super effective. So, again, Moving Cooler, a peer reviewed report with a really big, prominent review committee says 28% GHG reduction for $5 per gallon gas tax. It’s a conclusion from a very solid and recent report. I think it should be required reading.

    ZA, do you have a peer-reviewed report suggesting a $XB US transit investment will decrease Y% VMT? It would be great if there was a super transit path to sustainability, but I don’t think it’s easy.

    It sure would be nice if we could become more of a biking society. I do think that really high gas prices could bring about a big shift to biking. But the pain level has to sadly be really high for Americans to bike around.



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