The enormous societal benefits of working from home

There are enormous societal benefits to working from home, but no one is really aware of them. We can save up to 60.5 billion gallons of gas and 36.9 billion wasted hours each year if we work from home.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There's been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo's decision to require its workers to stop working from home. Given that our industry in particular has embraced telecommuting, there's been a considerable outcry.

How To Save Jobs
(Image: David Gewirtz)

Back in 2009 and 2010, I spent a tremendous amount of time researching work patterns and society, which resulted in the book How To Save Jobs (free download). As part of my recommendations for saving American jobs, I looked at the issues and benefits of working from home. This article is the first of a series derived from that research. The subsequent articles will be posted next week.

Working green by working from home

There are enormous societal benefits to working from home, but no one is really aware of them. Working from home is ultimately green.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post/Time Magazine poll taken in 2005, "220 million adults average an hour and a half a day in their cars". 60 percent admit to driving "well over the speed limit"; 62 percent say they get frustrated from time-to-time; 40 percent claim they get angry; and 20 percent admit that they sometimes "boil into road rage".

That's 44 million people experiencing road rage. That's a lot of boil. In fact, 41 percent report seeing road rage, and 54 percent claim they "often see other drivers making angry or impolite gestures".

I used to commute from Berkeley to Mountain View across the San Francisco Bay Bridge, California. If driven at 3am, it would take only 45 minutes. But during rush hour, my commute took me more than two hours each way. I only lasted five months with that commute, and then I moved closer to work. My new commute was only a 50 minute bumper-to-bumper drive, each way.

The ABC poll shows that most workers' commute times can vary from day-to-day by as much as 27 minutes each way — with a good trip to work taking an average of 19 minutes and a traffic-filled trip taking as long as 46 minutes. ABC said the average is 52 minutes on the road commuting, overall, over an average round trip distance of 32 miles.

A 2007 Gallup poll reflects some of the ABC News numbers. According to Gallup, workers spend an average of 46 minutes commuting round trip, with 85 percent driving themselves, 6 percent riding with someone else, 4 percent taking mass transit, and 3 percent walking.

If the average commuter takes 52 minutes to go 32 miles, that means the average commuter is driving at 37 miles an hour. Obviously, drivers go slower getting to and from the highway, and start and stop traffic takes longer than cruising at highway speeds, but let's just be simple and work with 37 miles an hour.

According to a 2007 United States Census report, 77 percent of American workers drive themselves to work alone. So let's work with that. As I discussed elsewhere in the book, there are roughly 234 million Americans in the civilian, non-institutional population. Let's drop out the 20 million or so we know who are not working right now, which leaves us with 214 million Americans.

214 million American commuters

That gives us about 164 million Americans who drive themselves to and from work. Multiplying 164 million by the average daily trip distance of 32 miles, we get 5,248,000,000 miles driven by American commuters each day. If the zeroes are getting to you, that's 5.2 billion miles driven each day.

Are you sitting down? That's 1.9 trillion miles driven by American commuters each year.

Now let's have some fun. Just how much fuel are we consuming by commuting? This is not an easy number to come by, so we'll be conservative again, in order to present the best-case scenario. Newer cars get better gas mileage, so let's just assume everyone's driving a 2009 or later model-year vehicle.

According to the US Department of Energy, the most fuel-efficient regular ol' gasoline vehicles were teeny-weeny two-seaters, which averaged 33 miles-per-gallon in the city and 41 on the highway. Of the 16 cars rated as most fuel efficient, the worst of these most fuel efficient rated 18 miles-per-gallon in the city and 27 on the highway.

We all know that your fuel economy is better on the highway and worse in city. And we also know our average driver is driving at 37 miles an hour, so we'll just take the highway and city miles-per-gallon numbers and average them.

So, just for the sake of our quick analysis, let's assume that the average driver gets about 22.5 miles-per-gallon commuting to work, which fits the mileage for an average American commuter vehicle.

Remember our 1.9 trillion commuter miles driven each year? If we divide that by 22.5 miles-per-gallon, we'll discover that American commuters use about 85 billion gallons of gasoline each year.

85 billion gallons

Gasoline prices have been all over the map, but let's just say that gas is a low $3 per gallon. That means American commuters spend about $255 billion per year just to commute to work.

I found it somewhat difficult to find average carbon footprint measurements for all these commuters, so I took the easy way out and used the "carbon footprint calculator" at TerraPass.com, a tool created by Dr Karl Ulrich of the University of Pennsylvania. It's not an official, unimpeachable source, but it's probably good enough for some rough estimates.

According to the TerraPass calculator, our average commuter generates 7,114 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, simply driving to and from work. Calculated out nationally, that's 1,166,696,000,000 (1.16 trillion) pounds of carbon dioxide generated each year simply by commuting Americans, just during their commutes.

Let's recap some of our numbers. First, let's look at individual commuters:

  • 52 minutes commuting each day, for about 225 hours a year (that's almost six full, 40-hour work weeks, just commuting)

  • 32 miles round trip, for about 8,320 miles driven a year

  • 22.5 miles per gallon, for about 369 gallons of gas consumed per year

  • $3 per gallon, for about $1,109 spent per person commuting, and

  • 7,114 pounds of carbon dioxide released each year commuting.

Now let's look at this across America, for a full year.

  • Americans spend 36.9 billion hours a year commuting

  • Americans drive 1.9 trillion miles commuting each year

  • Americans spend $255 billion just for the gasoline to commute

  • Americans consume 60.5 billion gallons of gasoline (the capacity of 1,298 Exxon Valdez tankers, fully loaded) each year to commute

  • Americans release 1.16 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide into the air while commuting.

Remember, that's a conservative estimate; it doesn't include how much of our taxes goes to road maintenance, how much we spend on cars, how many cars become scrap material, the cost of day care for working parents, and on and on and on.

Update: This is only one of a series of articles, but to answer the question posed by commenters below, and articulated perfectly by my colleague Steven Cherry, not all "cops, bartenders, assembly line workers, crop pickers, insurance adjusters" can work from home. But as commenter @Jeff_D_Programmer said below, even if only 3 percent work from home, there will be enormous benefits.

By the way, if you want to see where this data came from, here's a comprehensive list of my research resources.

Stay tuned. Next week, I'll discuss the benefits to the American economy if more Americans worked from home.

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