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How much commuting time are we saving by working from home?

A back-of-the-envelope calculation of pandemic-related changes

The FRED Blog has looked at the wide range of commuting times across U.S. cities and counties, as well as the impact of shorter commutes on employment and happiness.

Given that many employees have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll try to gauge the potential number of hours per week that are no longer spent commuting to work. Clearly, not every employee is working from home these days. So this is a “back-of-the-envelope” calculation, which uses available information to approximate answers to very complex questions.*

First, we use the latest data (which is from 2018) on the average daily commuting time for three suburban counties:

  • 29.57 minutes in DuPage County, IL
  • 24.30 minutes in St. Louis County, MO
  • 32.18 minutes in Fairfax, VA

Next, we multiply those average commuting times by the number of employed persons in those counties. Then we divide each figure by 60 to transform minutes to hours and multiply that by 5 to account for a 5-day workweek.

The FRED graph above shows the potential number of hours per week spent on commuting that are being saved by working from home: Between April and July, that potential weekly time savings in each county ranges from 1 million to 1.5 million hours.

*The physicist Enrico Fermi used this method to great effect in his research and teaching to get rough orders of magnitude. We wonder what Professor Fermi would have been able to accomplish if he had access to FRED… He received a Nobel Prize in physics in 1938 and passed in 1954, long before FRED came to be.

How this graph was created: Search for and select “Employed Persons in DuPage County, IL.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, use the “Add Line” tab to search for and select “Employed Persons in St. Louis County, MO” and “Employed Persons in Fairfax County, VA.” Next, click on “1Y” above the graph to display the last 12 observations. Next, customize each line by applying the formula (a*average commuting time/60)*5. For Line 1, that formula is (a*29.57/60)*5. Last, from the “Edit Graph” panel, click on the “Format” tab and select line colors and mark types to taste.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LAUCN170430000000005, LAUCN291890000000005, LAUCN510590000000005

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