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Monday, February 11, 2008

American Insanity: Killer Commutes

Image of traffic jam on highway
From MSN Money, 02.11.08:

America's killer commute
To afford a middle-class lifestyle, many workers are trading in time at home for time on the interstate. No wonder Americans feel they are literally out of time.

Colin Deaso, 30, travels more than an hour each way from his home in Sterling, Va., to his financial-services job in Washington, D.C. He leaves the house at 6:30 a.m.; in the evening, he waits until he thinks traffic has cleared, getting home by about 7 p.m. "I despise sitting in traffic," Deaso says. "Don't get me wrong -- it's difficult to leave early in the morning. But we could afford a bigger home here."

Sacrificing hours each day on the road seems like a necessary trade-off to many Americans. Many are willing to move farther away from their jobs as long as weekend time is spent in communities they like, where they can afford the kinds of homes they want.

"We've seen decentralization for decades now," says Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of California, Davis. "People are having to travel further away not just to have a house but to have a three-bedroom house with a yard..." (Read more.)
As a survivor of a suburban childhood, I will never mow a lawn again, let alone pay for the "privilege" of yardwork with car payments and fuel bills. I'm happy to enjoy parks maintained by union-scale professional municipal gardeners.

Earlier I posted on the insanity of the built environment in much of the U.S.--a built environment of low-density sprawl, which discourages bicycling, walking, and transit use. Here we have a multimedia article on long distance commuting, reinforcing the diminished community resulting from sprawl. People who commute more than an hour each way are less likely to attend school board or city council meetings, are less likely to volunteer for a local organization, are less likely to attend a play or concert on a weeknight, are less likely to dedicate quality time to their families. Community suffers, alienation increases.

According to this article--the latest among many "super commuter" stories in recent years--people move to distant communities seeking larger homes, spacious yards, better schools, lower costs. Sprawl costs public agencies money to support, as new infrastructure and services are required. The result is cities deprived of resources to create affordable housing, clean and well-maintained parks, quality public urban schools, and effective low-cost transit.

Transportation bicycling flourishes in denser urban areas, as distances are reduced between destinations (schools, jobs, retail, entertainment.) Bike commuting is more appealing when your job is located in a convenient location, and not many miles away in a sprawling office park off the freeway.

"Extreme commuting" is a pathological symptom of the insanity of the built environment in the U.S. Life is too short to waste it cutting grass.

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


clark said...

agree with all -- except i still kind of like the single family dwelling, the yard and even the cutting of the grass. i suppose it's burned into my psyche. i know it's still sprawl, even if it happened many decades ago -- but in a lot of cities you can find plenty of single family dwellings in reasonable proximity to the workplace, if you are willing to live in an area that's not considered the best part of town. and in a house that might seem too small, especially if you have too much stuff. if a lot of people do this -- display some confidence and belief in all of the city instead of the suburban fringe -- the whole city will be better off.

Noah said...

I tend to disagree that long-distance commuting excludes community. For example, my round trip is a little over an hour each way unless I hammer it -- but then I'm not enjoying myself. I still make it to city hall meetings. In fact, because of my long-distance commuting I can often make it to city hall meetings in the urban core over lunch, then make it to advocacy planning meetings and evening city hall meetings out in the suburbs from which I hail -- And I often do!

Keep in mind that I spent the first 21 years of my life living in rural areas. From birth to age 9 I spent in a small farm town in Nebraska. The next 12 years of my life were spent growing up 30 miles from Kansas City. Towards the end of my stay out there, I had two jobs and a fiancee to visit almost daily and would often put as many as 80 miles per day on my poor, little car.

Since then, I've moved twice but I still live in your vision of a suburban hell. That said, I now have a 30 mile round trip by bicycle. Round trip, riding my bike adds only 45 minutes to my commute, and that 45 additional minute gains me 2 hours or more of daily cardio.

I rarely disagree with your stance on an issue, but I really couldn't be happier with my current situation.

Keep in mind, however, that Kansas City's urban core is fledgeling -- just now starting to mature and develop into a place that's livable without a car. There's still not a proper grocery store within easy walking distance from the new lofts and apartments being wrought from the old, blighted structures here.

Anonymous said...

noah -

30 miles round trip is *nothing* - I think I have as many co-workers with a 15 mile or more one way commute as I have with less! On the extreme I have 2 co workers who commute from Folsom to Sunnyvale - that's 100 miles. Each way. There are 1000's of new (facing foreclosure) homes in places like Tracy, Ca. There are very few jobs within 50 miles of Tracy.

Your experience is not what Paul is talking about. Wait until your kids grow up, and your current suburb has a 3x price increase relative to inflation, and your kids want a starter house. When they end up buying 70 miles away from KC and commuting to downtown, you'll see the dilemma already starting in places like SF, LA, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, etc...

Noah said...

... And silly me is just now understanding that the article was a commute of an hour BY CAR each way ...

I haven't driven to my job since May 25th, and it was a few months prior to that when I drove before.

My bad, in that case. An hour by bike really seems pleasant to me. An hour by car... Well... That sucks.

clark said...

i guess what bugs me about the article, is the underlying assumptions: they're not necessarily saying housing isn't available closer-in, just that it's high-priced and in unsafe areas. if you really start to parse it, to my more paranoid side it sounds like code -- for needing to get to suburbs that are white enough! and the people who decide they really need that 2,000+ SF and a double car garage, regardless of the commute -- this is the inevitable end game. downsize and reclaim the abandoned areas closer to the center.