I’ve just returned from two weeks on vacation during which I traveled thousands of miles but didn’t personally drive a single one. In New York City and in cities in Europe and Africa, I returned to car-free living, which always makes me think about my commute to work here in the Boston area.

What is the real cost of commuting? There’s the obvious financial cost the car and it’s associated maintenance (valued by the IRS at 48.5 cents per mile in 2007), plus the environmental cost of that car’s emissions, and of course, the stress, lost time, and physical danger of zipping about in a tin box at highway speeds with hundreds of others doing the same.

Using one of the many web-based calculators available (this one is based on 2003 data), I got a figure of $4,140. It would be nice to have an extra $4k in my pocket, but I don’t see that I would accept double the commute for a $4k raise. So what’s the gap between my personal utility for commuting and the readily available calculators?

How about time? Let’s assume that I could reduce my daily commute by 10 minutes each way, each day. That would be an annual time savings of 80 hours (10 mins/way x 2 ways/day x 5 days/week x 4 weeks/mo x 12 mo/year = 4,800 minutes). That’s about two weeks of time for which I don’t get paid and for which my employer gets no benefit, what economists might call Deadweight Loss. So every minute of commuting is four hours a year of lost time. That sounds a little closer to how I feel about it.

Having geeked out on numbers, the next logical step for me was to geek out on maps. Google maps wasn’t really designed for this, and I don’t have access to a professional GIS tool, so I poked around in Microsoft MapPoint and found a function that draws a “drivetime zone” showing all the places you can reach from a certain point in a certain time. Drivetime ZonesHere is MapPoint’s map of my 10, 20 and 30 minute drivetime zones. The usual disclaimers apply, but you can clearly see the 10-minute zones that are worth two weeks a year each in lost time.

Getting inside the 10 minute drivetime zone puts public transportation and even walking back on the table, although both of those would probably take longer than driving, depending on the parking situation at work. In the meatime, Rabbi Low’s recent mods to my ride are making things a little less awful on the drive to work.