Commuting vs Walking – How Much Can You Save?

Eighteen months ago, give or take a few days, my bicycle was stolen. Very upsetting, and an object lesson in why a decent home contents insurance policy goes a long way, but that’s another story…

Very shortly thereafter we moved home, and the new address was somewhat further away from work than before. This was one of several inconvenient features of our new abode. Also another story.

The question I asked myself was: Now that I don’t have a bicycle (because someone prefers to take from others than to earn for themselves), do I walk to work or take the underground (“subway” for you foreigners out there) to work every day?

I made a decision based on a vague notion that, given the choice, it’s better to not spend money. This is a decision I’ve stuck with for eighteen months, walking 45 minutes each way every single working day.

I also chose to walk because I’m all about taking control of my money, and this is one of those areas that I completely control my spending. If I can’t move the needle here, what chance do you have in areas you don’t directly control?

So I was looking for an idea for something to talk about on my blog today and it occurred to me that I’d never actually run the numbers on this decision, and I’ve spent approximately 450 hours walking as a consequence of this decision. So perhaps I should… you know… check?

It’s quite concerning having to check a decision that’s cost you so much time, facing the very real possibility that you’ve cost yourself several weeks of productive time pounding the pavement just for the sake of getting from A to B and saving a buck or two.

Anyway: How’s that worked out?

The Gut Decision

Photograph of a red London bus in Notting Hill. Copyright 2019
A London Bus In My Neighbourhood (c) 2019 PennyNinja

I talk a lot on this blog about basic, common sense principles of finance. First among these is small amounts matter. The stereotypical example is take-away coffees at £2.60 five days a week, forty weeks a year (£520 per year, in case you were wondering). If you can’t control your spending in these areas, then your budget will forever miss the target.

But does this small amount matter?

As I mentioned above, I didn’t bother to work it out. I figure I go to work most days, so we’re in the ballpark of 200 days a year, and the cost of a return trip to work on public transport is between £3 and £4.80, so either way it has to be more than the coffee. Right?

In my head I figured it was worth in the region of £600 or more.

That said, I didn’t stop to think about the numbers. It felt big, so I figured I’d walk. That was the decision. Walk to work. Don’t think too hard about it.

I’m not entirely sure I want to know. Perhaps it’s better to stop here and live in blissful ignorance.

So: Was it a good decision?

The Analysis

Not all costs are monetary, but I’m not a fan of exchanging my time against something without knowing what I’m getting in return.

If you’ve read some of my past articles you’ll know that I’m all about measuring costs and conscious spending, which allow me to spend less money by avoiding bad habits or unconscious spending.

On this issue, I don’t seem to have been thinking too clearly the last 18 months. I’ve saved money, but was it worth it? Let’s see what we can do to clear that up.

The first thing to consider is how much time I spend walking, or how much time I could save by taking public transport.

The Cost in Minutes

To get from my home to my work on foot is 45 minutes. In a bus it takes about 35 minutes. On the underground (subway) it takes about 25 minutes. I used Google Maps to figure this out.

On average, therefore, it takes about 20 minutes more to get to work on foot than it does on the underground. Per day that works out to 40 minutes, because I obviously have to walk back again when I’ve finished working. That’s the cost of choosing to walk every day instead of taking the Underground.

That’s not negligible. On an annual basis, assuming I walk there roughly 200 times a year, it’s 8,000 minutes more time than using public transport. That’s an extra 133 hours and 20 minutes spent commuting over a year. A little under four standard working weeks. (Yes, I know, who works a “standard” working week these days?)

If I took the bus rather than the underground, I save only half as much time: 4000 minutes. That’s 66 hours and 40 minutes.

So now we know the numerical cost in units of time, let’s look at…

The Savings in Cash

This is what we care about, right? It’s all about the money. We’re aiming for financial independence.

I alluded to this calculation above, but let’s look at it more methodically.

I live and work in London Zone 1 for commuting purposes. That means that a single ticket, regardless of the time of day, is £2.40. The London Underground therefore costs me £4.80 per day for a return trip. The prices for travel on the London Underground are easy to find.

Assuming I take that return journey 200 times each year, the annualised cost is £960.

The cost of the bus is £1.50 each way, so £3.00 return. That adds up to £600 each year.

Great, that looks like useful information. But is it really? What is…

The Value of My Time

In fact, none of these numbers are all that helpful, because they’re “nominal” numbers. £960 sounds like a lot of money, but it really depends on what you get in return for that cash.

A more useful measure would be the cost per hour of my time. That’s because it’s comparable to other things I could be doing with those same minutes. Writing a book, meditating on my failed attempt at minimalism. Whatever.

£960 / 133.33 = £7.20 per hour

I save £960 but it costs me 133 hours, so I basically get paid £7.20 per hour in return for walking to work.

I’ll be honest,

That seems like a lot

I mean let’s face it, it’s just walking.

The reason it’s so high is because public transport – at least in my case – doesn’t save me a ton of time. It’s not like I have to walk two hours or something. I’m paying a lot of money to reduce my travel time by only 20 minutes each trip or 40 minutes each day.

I’m exchanging £4.80 in cash for 40 minutes of time. Multiply that by 200 days a year and you get the £960 and the 8,000 minutes.

Taking it Beyond the Math

The math is only part of the story, however. There are two more things to take into account before we’ve analysed everything completely.


This is a Financial Best Case

Our little calculation is only valid if I then spend an entire year never taking public transport to work, and walking to work exactly 200 days.

That’s not what actually happened.

Sometimes I’m late, and I have to hurry up. In my first month I must have jumped on a bus or taken the tube four or five times.

That was annoying, so I subscribed to the Santander Bicycle program, which has bicycles available a lots of points across London, so I could grab one of those when I needed to. But that costs money too.

Then I’d get sent on business trips quite often, or I’d work from home from time to time. That doesn’t change the savings per hour of time walked, but it does reduce the overall annual financial benefit because I wouldn’t have taken public transport to work on those days anyway.

All this to say that, like all good theories and calculations, there’s a big cursive “E” on the end of the equation that represents the “error term”. Those random events that throw the numbers out of whack. This error term is very biased towards the negative end – lots of things happen that result in additional transport costs. It doesn’t invalidate the analysis, but it does make the number a best case scenario.

However, there are also…

The Hidden Upsides

There are a whole bunch of advantages to walking to work.

The first of these is really obvious: Come rain or shine, I spend 25 hours a month walking outdoors. I don’t know a lot of people who do that, and it’s sure not bad for my health. I also walk along the Regent’s Canal, which despite being in central London is really quite pretty. Most days I get to work in a pretty good state of mind.

The second advantage is also obvious: I avoid spending time in the London Underground. It’s a cramped, psychologically damaging space where people standing within inches of each other spend considerable energy pretending the people around them don’t exist, while taking a steam bath in each others sweat and breathing air which I would bet good money is heavy with particulate matter and all manner of pollutants. It’s a good thing to avoid.

My third advantage was slightly unexpected: I obtained a subject of conversation. I didn’t expect this when I started doing it, but people find it fascinating that you can live in London and walk to work every day. It gets them talking. The train, tube or bus is a ritual imposed on most people and they make the best of it, but when they hear that you walk along the canal for 20 minutes every morning they’re amazed.

Given the health benefits, walking to work might actually be worth it even if public transport were free.

Which kind of brings me to my point.

It’s not always about the money.