Environmental Puzzle Solving: Doing the Math on the Commute

Pursuant to my previous post, today's project in the decision making process for Eric and I (we'll finally see the inside of the house tomorrow) is to find how long the commute to Eric's job and our synagogue is. These two things make up about half of our total driving - only half simply because we are very fortunate, and Eric has managed to work his academic schedule so he's only on campus three days per week.

We realized last night that the house is further from SUNY Albany and our synagogue in Niskayuna than we'd realized - we'd figured it would be about the same since the house is only a tiny bit west, and mostly due north - we'd forgotten the degree to which I90 spreads - so the actual mileage is about half again as much. For someone concerned with environmental impacts, the prospect of raising our gas mileage substantially is a non-trivial factor.

One of the reasons it would almost certainly go up is that Eric is able to carpool part of the time - this would probably eventually be possible in the new house, but we don't know anyone in the area immediately who is a likely candidate so this would take time. Because Eric's schedule is somewhat irregular - he runs late night observing sessions regularly, for example and doesn't get home until midnight - he can't usually find anyone with precisely the same schedule, and must drive alone sometimes. So we would not be able to wholly obviate those miles.

When we sat down this morning to discuss the issue, I was initially inclined to think that the additional mileage might be a deal-breaker for me. Transportation emissions are one of the largest factors in climate change, and I have no real interest in increasing my overall mileage. I would be willing to put up with a very small increase - under 500 miles per year - in order to reduce energy usage elsewhere, which I think would be possible in the new house, but not a large one.

We could cut the number of trips we take to synagogue - and that is one option - the children attend Hebrew school twice a week, and we could reduce that number of trips to one - the synagogue would support us. We could provide that education at home - although we're a little reluctant to do this because Eli benefits so much from time with his aide, and Simon is just hitting the age where he can join other more advanced kids in learning groups and do more creative stuff. But that is one option. Eric would have to give up leading a weekly prayer minyan on the same day, but that's possible as well, although we'd be very sorry. Or he might be able to shift to doing a different day, and do it on his way home from work, with little additional mileage.

From a purely cost perspective, this is a no brainer - even if gas prices rise to $5 per gallon in the near future, the additional commuting would be less than $400 - whereas we might save as much as $8000 in total housing and energy costs. But I don't want to just look at it from a financial perspective, because I think that ignores our overall impact.

From a time perspective, the difference isn't that great - the commute would be a fairly straight shot down 90, rather than the multi-highway plus plenty of back roads commutes that we do now. The drive would be a bit longer, but not as much as the distance would imply, simply because it was more direct. When Eric has to travel during rush hour, which he does once a week, it might be faster, since going West on 90 rarely involves any traffic. It is also likely that a few miles might be shaved off the trip by better knowledge of local backroads - that's certainly true at our current place.

But what about the driving impact. That sticks in my craw - since 2007, my family has managed to use only about 55 gallons of gas per person per year - excluding my son Eli who is bused to a school for children with autism.

Since my concern was overall driving impact, rather than these, I sat down to figure out how our driving shakes out. Living where we do, and with young children who cannot handle the distances and steep hills on bikes yet, we have to drive almost everywhere - when we're alone my husband and I do walk sometimes, but it simply isn't viable with the kids to cover the 4 miles to town and back - up and down over very steep hills yet. We sat down to figure out how much of our actual daily driving is the commute - and it turns about it is only about half.

The other half of our driving consists of a mix of fungible and unfungible trips - 7 miles to the local farmstand, 4 miles to the library, etc... are among the ones that might be consolidated and shortened. The great virtue of the new place is that within walking and biking distance there would now be a library, general store, Amish bulk-goods store and a few farmstands.

Some of our other driving is not going to change - we travel several times a year to visit family, and the dogs and cats will still need to go to the vet now and then, and the kids to the pediatrician. We may be able to localize some of that - find a closer vet than our previous one, find a local pediatrician - we just don't know (this is one of the annoying imponderables, particularly since we adore both our pede and our vet).

So here's the question - how much impact would localizing our lives actually have, assuming no major other changes in our travel patterns, and leaving out both painful major shifts in our day to day lives (ie, no weekday Hebrew school and minyan) and assuming no carpool?

When I sat down and ran the numbers, I found that some of this is guess work, but in fact, those little local trips are the cause of a larger percentage of our mileage than we actually had thought. It would take some doing and adjusting to manage, but if we assume that we keep only 1/4 of the local trips, it turns out that the mileage increase falls within my 500 mile annual limit. This is partly guess work, but we can drop back within that limit either by eliminating weekday Hebrew school or by finding Eric a carpool on the days that's possible - that is, we wouldn't be driving any more miles than we actually are now.

So the house is back on the table. We're off this morning to find out how the commute actually looks, and check out the contents of the general store. We will also assume that if we buy the house and move there we will stop wasting gas by measuring things ;-).

This may all be hypothetical - the realtor told us she's showing the house to someone before us on Thursday. I'm not totally sure I believe her - that seems like the kind of things realtors say ;-), but it could be true. But some things are in the hands of fate, and some things are in ours. Might as well work on ours.


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I have homestead in the country and a city house. Country house is way more expensive, way more miles. In the city walk to work when not raining, walk at night, walk to small shop, garden in yard.

In the country it is a one man band, in the city a community be it water, sewage, education, transportation, mail, telephone, etc. There is no way to can enough to make up for the gasoline used.

You may notice that many of the back to the landers write for a secondary living - that is farming for you.


The possibility that the job at SUNY Albany might disappear must be weighed in. As I understand it, your total costs for housing will drop significantly with this other house. If the job disappears, then gas usage will lower, and it will be a lower amount that you will be required to earn in order to pay the bills. Unfortunately, in this era of disappearing jobs, the practical considerations are sometimes paramount. If you did stay, and couldn't meet the tax and flood insurance burden, what would be the consequences? Could your house be sold in a Tax Sale? This is probably a concern of anyone with any significant amount of land. Also keep in mind that as local government finances go into crisis, they will likely try to raise taxes.

By jlpicard2 (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

Don't know if this is relevant for you, but our local secondary roads include a fair amount of gravel. Wear and tear on both tires and body nicks is considerable.

"You may notice that many of the back to the landers write for a secondary living - that is farming for you.

I think you need to get out more! If 1/2% is many, then yeah. Another 1% write, too; but there is no "living" in it.

Looking to the future the new location sounds like it would stay rural while your current location seems to be turning suburban. RUN! You hear stories in the USA of farmers losing their land through increases in taxes due the the change in the makeup of their neighbourhood, it is only going to get worse. Thank heavens here in BC for ALR, agricultural land reserve, our taxes aren't influenced by the neighbour's land usage.

The other future consideration, as mentioned, is the possible future loss of the SUNY employment. That will have a huge impact on the commute.

The increase in walkable and bikable destinations is a huge plus. Not to mention the farmability of the land itself. The type of neighbours you'll be getting - WOW. Much more compatible than Mr. & Mrs. 5000 sq. ft.

Does your synagogue have a directory of 'members'? Can you find out if there are other Jewish people in your new area? Can you work to build a faith community closer to home. We face this as Orthodox Christians, our parish is 120 km from home which we attend once a week, we have to miss any other services for the most part. BUT we do host a mid week service here in our small community in our home for the EO who live here too. WTSHTF these people will be our only faith community and I'm okay with that!

Best thoughts going your way!

You already have the goats. Get those boys a pumpkin wagon and a map to church.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink

I don't know whether or not you weighed this in your calculations, but it seems like you're saying that after the proposed move more of Eric's commute would be highway miles (as opposed to back road miles) than it is currently. Don't most cars get better mileage on the highway? If the fuel efficiency of the commute goes up, how would that affect your thinking?

I agree with kate (#6) - you should factor in your gas mileage driving on the highway, not your total miles. Most newer cars actually tell you the average gas mileage for a trip, you can compare that to your current commute.

Sounds like a winner to me. Stores and library within walking distance? You can't beat that. And the $8000/year in tax and energy savings is nothing to sniff at.

Go for it.

It may be a puzzle to you, but I think it sounds like a no-brainer (but of course I don't have the connections you have to where you are currently living). But at the new location, the Amish I think would be an especial attraction if they are friendly, they would provide a lot of help and be able to teach new ways of living with less. The highway commute would be more efficient than the back roads (gravel?). And if there is any prospect of Eric losing his job, that $8000 reduction in overt monetary cost would be really important to you.

I also think you need to loosen up a little on the tradeoff between reducing your climate footprint and the practical economic considerations. Reducing one's climate impact is important, but it's not a moral absolute, which your comments sometimes seem to suggest. Not when China is building a new coal-fired plant every week.

I agree that the relative fuel efficiency on the two commutes is worth checking. Whether the difference is that big depends on what sort of back roads he uses now: if it's rural areas the difference is probably not that large (some of the advantage on the highway is lost to higher speeds), but if his current commute takes him through a big chunk of Schenectady it will make a difference. Type of car also matters; the difference in efficiency will be less if you already drive a hybrid car since much of the hybrid's efficiency gains arise from mitigating the effects of stop-and-go city traffic.

In considering road conditions also take into account the fiscal health of the government unit that maintains the roads. The Thruway (which I assume will account for most of the miles) has dedicated toll revenue to help cover maintenance expenses (don't forget the cost of tolls--I haven't driven that part of I-90 in about 15 years, but back then they waived tolls for people traveling between Schenectady and the Albany West/Northway exit). Counties and townships may be more severely revenue constrained, and one of the ways that can hit you is cutbacks in maintenance--I hear that in some places local governments are converting (or by failing to maintain the roads effectively allowing them to convert) formerly paved roads to gravel. Snow removal in winter is also an issue--no problem on I-90, and main streets in and near the village should be OK, but back roads generally don't get as much attention.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Jul 2010 #permalink


It occurs to me that reconsidering staying where you are may not be as stable as you may be thinking. What I wonder about, is water. Ground water. And more neighbors, possibly coming from the city, without an appreciation for water discipline.

Each new house that goes up risks another installation of water-sprinkled lawn. And other practices that add up to pulling water out of surface or subsurface aquifers (wells, that is, drinking water, the elixir of life) - whether the water is gathered on private property or community well or water plant.

This goes for both locations, obviously. If the neighbors are grazing livestock, and have been doing so for years, that is probably sustainable. If any have CAFO feedlots or confined feeding operations, though, both depletion of water available and contamination of surface and subsurface water may be a concern.

For each location - is the water table stable? Have shallow wells been holding steady over recent years? Has the water quality been holding, or has contamination and mineral content fallen outside normal commercial filter and softener ranges?

Of course, maintaining availability of water is a concern for anyone, adapting in place or looking for someplace more sustainable.

You might also look into the difference in costs for permits at both locations, for adding a new outbuilding or the house, for digging a well or adding a cistern. I suspect the new place might be more flexible about remodeling, insulating, etc.


Very good and helpful advice, all of it, thanks. The highway difference vs. backroads isn't as dramatic as we thought, having done it - but it does cut down on chunks of Albany driven through and lights, which is good.

Brad, water will be a big consideration - there's unbelievable quantities of water on my present property - our 145 foot well had, in a drought year, a water table at 9 feet down. There's a cistern that in a drought year still had 9 feet of water in it. And while we can get McMansions, we have five acre zoning and we do have right to farm laws in effect in my area, so it isn't so much a matter of housing projects going up across the road as just another house and another neighbor - could be awesome, could be the best neighbors on the planet.

I will be asking lots of questions about water -
It is a bit longer to synagogue, and more substantially longer for Eric's commute, which sucketh, but given the possible other reductions, isn't a deal breaker.

The question about what happens if Eric loses his job is central to me, and that's why the lower fixed expenses appeal so much - honestly, though, I've decided that I'm kind of leaving it to Eric and fate - that is, Eric is much more bothered by the idea of moving than I am, and is also much more worried about money than I am ;-) - in the end, I'm letting him decide how much either concern should shape what we do.

What I think I've decided is that I'll be happy and content either way - I wanted to make clear why we are considering the move here, but we have a lovely, wonderful farm that I love, and I think we can manage and swing the finances. There are pluses and minuses to every move, and however it works out, I'll be happy. That's actually a big relief and a good place to be right now.

Dennis, I assume you include in your calculations the energy costs of the infrastructure and outsourced energy costs to bring everything in - frankly, I think many of the calculations about cities understate the externalized energy costs - but that said, I've not objection to the idea that cities are more efficient. Since they generally don't permit good sized goat herds, and have limited lot sizes, that isn't one of our choices. If I could find cheap housing (yet another way cities externalize costs) in some places near me, I'd consider it.



As painful as it is, I think you may want to consider this at least partially from the economic angle.

If you save $8000 a year in taxes and insurance, that's money that could be applied directly towards the mortgage -thus hastening the day when you get rid of it, increase the stability of your family, and possibly allow Eric to quit the job at SUNY (if that's what he wants, or cut it back more if that is what he would like). The mortgage calculator I looked up says that if you borrow $100,000 at 5% and pay an extra $8k a year towards it, the mortgage will be paid off in less than 10 tears. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Also, assuming the job he has now disappears, that eight grand could be the difference between keeping your property and losing it.

P.S. We finally got some land. 10 acres! We closed just this morning. :)

These East Coast discussions around land and houses seem so quaint...care to guess what a place like that would go for anywhere West of the Cascades?

Check out www.redfin.com for the Seattle or Portland regions.

I live west of the Cascades, and it depends where you go. There are so many different options available in Oregon, for example, that I simply havent decided where I am going to finally settle down for good.

I live in a small city. Two blocks from me there is pasture with cows. There are gardens everywhere, people keeping chickens and ducks. Enough land just in the city to grow a lot of food and there is a creek behind where I live.

I am lucky to have friends who have a lot of experience in rural living and food raising who have told me they will gladly live with and help a dumb city boy like me. Plus, lots of WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) farms all around, and I could afford to actually pay a farmer for an intership such that it would cost them zero to have 40-50 hours of labor from me a week.

So, Transition Town, or, go more rural, and if rural, how rural? I really dont know because it depends on how bad it looks like the Collapse is going to be, and I am not sure about that yet. Talking with a rural friend today, he said he expects a large amount of people to die off initially.

Somebody has to make up the statistics, a lot of people are going to die in the initial destructive chaos, and everyone needs to reconcile themselves to the fact that it may be them or their family.

As such, obsessing over the optimum survival conditions/preparations for "me and my family" has to be let go of at some point. The ultimate "preparation" has to do with facing death, yours, the death of members of your family and most of all facing the mass death that will happen all over the world. Peak Everything is already killing lots of people in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, pakistan, Gaza, Nigeria - these people dont have the luxury of obsessing over preparation - they are already living in catastrophe.

So, take it from someone who devoted their life to esoteric spirituality: spiritual preparation for facing death is THE most important thing you can do because anyone of us could do all the right material preparations that can be done and still see ourselves and our families bite the dust in the first wave of the Collapse.

Sharon, I was wondering, what's your take on electric cars? Would that make commuting any better emissionwise?

Sharon, there's nothing like a practice run to see if the new place would work out. Since the new place is empty, maybe the owners would let you rent it for a week or two to practice how living there would work. Fortunately you have your new housemate to help cover taking care of your animals at the current farm while you practice at the new place. One thing I have regretted doing in a few of the places I moved to is staying overnight before making the move. You never know how noisy or flood-light-lit a place can be until you sleep there a few days.

By Christine (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think you have left out the consideration that highway driving gives you significantly better gas mileage than in-town driving. My truck gets around 13 mi/gal in town but 17.5 mi/gal on the highway. This could significantly affect your totals, especially since so much of your driving is at high speed.

By Rex Saffer (not verified) on 29 Jul 2010 #permalink

Just an F.Y.I. - as a former Realtor, saying "Someone is taking a look at it this afternoon" is the oldest trick in the book. When you go there, look for other Realtors' business cards (it's customary to leave one when you show a property, and many homeowners, but not all, just leave them lying around). It's a common sales tactic to try and "create urgency" in a buyer who seems stalled, in an effort to spur them into making an emotional buying decision. It's a gamble, and you have to know your clients well, because that decision can often by 'no', but Realtors don't always think of that.
1 more thing: Ask the Realtor point blank how long it has been on the market, and if there have been any other offers - if so, why did they fall through? There could be deficiencies you don't know about. Finally, if the Realtor doesn't answer the 'how long' question directly, and you didn't see it the day it came up, often the photo can be quite revealing (we see properties advertised on the local MLS where the photos show the trees only just budding out = grossly overpriced!).
Hope that helps.

Well, see what I missed not reading your blog for a few days. ;-) Eight years ago the DH and I moved. Didn't expect to do it; figured we'd stay in the previous house till we died there. I had fruit trees and veggie gardens on the 50x100 foot lot, we'd done major remodeling to the house. Sure, I'd outgrown the tiny yard and we'd talked a bit about moving to a bigger lot. I'd even made up a list of the features I wanted. But we dropped the idea after we looked at costs and added in the extreme hassle of moving.

Then the current house dropped unexpectedly in our lap. We bought it, even managed to sell the old house on word of mouth advertising. I hated, hated, hated leaving behind most of my flowers and the two apple trees that were just beginning to bear (I did move smaller trees and shrubs). We both hated, hated, *hated* the moving process. Snapped at each other for weeks. Overall, though, I'm glad we moved. We can grow a lot more food here and after a lot of work done and money spent on the current house, our energy costs are lower than at the previous house. Gasoline is still somewhat more, but we are continuing to look at dropping activities. I hope to not move again, but realize, reluctantly, that there is no stability to be had in this world. Maybe we'll move again - but if we have to, we're going to put it off as long as we can. Where we are now is a pretty good place.

I wish you and your family the best as you mull over your options.

Another thing to consider, perhaps, is that if Eric loses his job, will this new house be in a location where a new job will be within an easy commute? My husband and I moved a couple of years ago to be closer to his job, but now that he is looking for a new job, we've found that we boxed ourselves into a corner with fewer job opportunities and longer commute times to travel anywhere else.