Jef Claes

On software and life

04 Nov 2012

Commuting? Have you done the math?

On my first job interview, over four years ago, I was asked whether I would relocate if I was hired. Back then, I still lived in the Campine region with my parents, while the Ferranti Computer Systems headquarters are in Antwerp. I thought about it for a few seconds and told the interviewer that I didn’t plan on moving out of my parents’ place in the first few years. Besides, the distance isn’t that great; it’s only 60km (=37 miles) of highway, how bad could it be? Apparently that reply was good enough since I was given the job a few days later.

Well, that commute grew old rather quickly though. Turns out that those 60km of highway are one of the most saturated pieces of asphalt in Belgium, with up to 20 to 30km (12 to 18 miles) of systematic traffic jams every damn single day.

And when you have to take the car to work, the options you have to spend that time useful are rather limited; the only things I could think of at the time were listening to podcasts and reflecting on the things of life. The latter made me hate my situation even more, so that wasn’t an optimal pastime.

I actually never had the courage to calculate how much time I wasted in traffic those three years. Today, I’m in a far more comfortable situation, so plucking up courage wasn’t that hard anymore. With 52 weeks in one year, and 5 days in a week, there are 260 business days in one year. In Belgium, we don’t work on all of those though, so I had to subtract 25 vacation days, and 6 holidays; bringing down the number of working days to 229. My rather optimistic guess is that I was on the road for somewhere around 140 minutes each day. So 229 days multiplied by 140 minutes comes down to a total of 32060 minutes, or 534 hours, or 66 working days. Gasp! 66 working days per year gone to waste. I knew the numbers were going to be bad, but this is even a lot worse than I expected.

Easing this burden isn’t trivial though, and I can only think of a few feasible options, excluded changing jobs:

  • Travel outside rush hours: leave for work very early or really late. I experimented with the former for quite some time, but I never really got used to it. It also seems a bit counterproductive to have your rhythm be too different from that of your team members. I’m guessing your family life will suffer as well, but I can’t be the judge of that.
  • Bring the office to you. In this technological day and age there are hardly any sound arguments not to encourage working from home. Yet, the classical enterprise shies away from embracing it and seems to be more comfortable sticking with the status quo than improving working conditions for their employees. 
  • Relocate. This option might be drastic, yet it’s the one with the biggest probability of success.
  • If possible, use public transport. Even if your total time enroute increases, you will have more time to do something productive while you take away some of the frustration that comes along with commuting by car.

Earlier this year, I moved from one of the (work-wise) more remote corners of Belgium to a far better located area; the heart of Antwerp. To top that, I’m now living and working within walking distance of the train station, so I’m taking the train on a daily basis. In total I’m still on the go more than two hours, but I can now spend 75% of that time usefully. That’s 43 working days extra to spend each year! I’ve made a habit out of using that commute time for self-study; reading, working on side projects and writing. This seems to have considerably affected my state of mind for the better. I get home at night, and I’ve already spent a considerable amount of time challenging myself intellectually. I now no longer stress about practicing less ‘productive’, but very enjoyable activities; such as playing the guitar, working out or doing stuff around the house. I get to have both now.

There are only so few hours in a day, having to spend a considerable amount of that time just to get somewhere seems such a waste. Every day we try tools and techniques which save us a few minutes, and should help us improve the quality of our day-to-day lives, yet we often disregard optimization of the biggest time hog of them all. It goes without saying that those numbing long commutes by car aren’t something that I’ll ever decide to go back to lightly.

When I read my Twitter feed in the morning, I see a lot of other Belgian people complain about their commute. Is this a Belgian thing only? Which means of transport do you use for the commute? How long are you on the road each day? **Have you done the math? **

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