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Looking for the perfect commute

Tired of filling the gas tank? Here's a look at commuting options

By Tom Foreman

Editor's note: Tom Foreman's series on commuting options originally appeared on NewsNight with Aaron Brown and Anderson Cooper, which airs 10-midnight ET, Monday through Friday.

Tom Foreman in SUV.
Overall, it costs Tom Foreman $125 a week to drive his SUV to the CNN office in Washington.


United States

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Call it the Quest for the Holy Trail.

With gasoline prices soaring, commuters nationwide are seeking alternatives to paying through the nose at the pump. SUV sales are down, bicycle sales are up, and mass transit systems are seeing a mass influx of passengers.

So I set out this week to explore three popular commuting alternatives to my 10-mile trip from suburban Bethesda, Maryland, to the CNN office near Capitol Hill in Washington.

Monday: Car

Roughly nine out of 10 commuters travel to work -- together or alone -- in a car, truck or van, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And who can blame us?

A personal automobile gives us maximum control over when and where we go, the music we listen to, and the temperature at which we travel. Toss in a tiny, cardboard pine tree and we even can control the smell.

But Americans are paying quite dearly for this privilege. Depending on what kind of car we drive, it costs between 42 cents and 78 cents for every mile traveled, according to the American Automobile Association.

When I added up all the costs of driving my seven-year-old SUV to work -- gasoline, the original vehicle price, depreciation, insurance, parking, maintenance -- the result was a staggering $125 a week. That's more than $6,000 a year and possibly higher, given my somewhat conservative estimates.

That's a lot of money to spend on commuting to work. I figured there had to be a better and cheaper way.

Tuesday: Train

This one was trickier.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority -- "DC Metro" to its regular riders -- is one of the better commuter rail systems I've encountered in the United States. Train tracks radiate like wheel spokes from downtown into the surrounding suburbs. The train cars are large and clean. It's a popular system, too. DC Metro officials say 8 percent more people are taking the train this year thanks to higher gas prices.

The problem for me is that my home is not within walking distance of a Metro stop.

One option is to hop onto a transit bus near my house and ride to the Metro station in Bethesda, Maryland. From there catch a train to Union Station in Washington, just a couple of blocks from the office. That costs about $35 a week. But because it takes considerably more time than driving to the office, it is not terribly convenient.

So I decided to drive to the Bethesda station instead of taking a bus. That decision made all the difference. It cut critical minutes off of my commute and convinced me the train would save me at least 20 minutes each day.

But that little drive also pushed the cost of my commute through the roof, making it almost as expensive as driving all the way.

So what if I ditched the car altogether?

Wednesday: Bicycle

Given the high cost of gasoline these days, bicycles are getting new attention from commuters everywhere. I discovered that this week as I pedaled down a tree-lined trail popular with Washington's bike commuters, like Lynne Mavracic.

When a mechanic told Mavracic last February that she needed a new car, she decided she didn't need a car at all. She started riding her bicycle everywhere. Eight months later, with no gas bills, parking fees or car insurance, she has saved $6,000.

"It was a serious adjustment at first," Mavracic said as she leaned against her shiny, black and purple bike, "because you get in the mind-set of jumping into your car, and it takes only 5 minutes to get to the grocery store."

But the storm of traffic found in most urban areas can make cycling intimidating.

The latest federal transportation bill, however, contains about $4.5 billion over the next five years for bike and walking trails and education programs for riders and drivers. Also, many towns and cities across the United States already have taken steps to make it easier to commute by bike, according to Elizabeth Preston of the advocacy group League of American Bicyclists.

"So now, when you're mad and don't want to pay the fuel prices, you can go out and start bike commuting, and you'll be amazed at the infrastructure that's there waiting for you," she said.

That doesn't mean biking is for everyone. You have to live within biking distance -- usually a few miles -- of work and along a bicycle-friendly route. You may need to have a shower available at the office. You'll have to carry extra clothing, and that almost certainly means buying extra gear for your bike. You also may need a new bike, too.

The rewards, though, are huge: exercise, no more traffic-related stress and unbelievable monetary savings.

For me, it works out like this: If I bike to work every day for two months, I will save at least $1,000.

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