April 15, 2007

The Costs of Commuting

There's a great article in this week's New Yorker magazine (sorry, it's not online update: Thanks to Charlie for posting the link to the article) about commuting, "There and Back Again" by Nick Paumgarten. I know it's been written about before, but he takes an intriguing, in-depth look at the lengthening commute of the average American, what the costs and trade-offs are, and whether people are even aware of the price they're paying.

In Atlanta, "perhaps the purest specimen of a vexed commuter town," Paumgarten notes, 94% of residents commute by car.
"According to the last census, the travel time in Atlanta grew faster in the nineties than in any other American city, and it's getting worse.Travelling ten miles can take 45 minutes.

"Road-building doesn't much help. Atlanta is a showcase for a phenomenon called 'induced traffic': the more highway lanes you build, the more traffic you get [see my post, Building More Roads is One of the Worst Solutions for Congestion, Not an Answer]. People find it agreeable to move farther away, and, as others join them, they find it less agreeable (or affordable), and so they move farther still. The lanes fill up."

Paumgarten took a commute with one Atlantan with a 55-mile drive each way, with a drive home that can take up to an hour just to get out of his office parking lot thanks to rush hour combined with heavy traffic from a nearby mall.

The commute isn't outrageous by current standards, Paumgarten notes, yet the trip is wearing, "with its toxic blend of predictability and unpredictability -- tedium broken by episodes of aggravation and despair. Barring the invention of the jet pack, the trip can only get longer."

People "tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute -- money, house, prestige -- and to undervalue what they're giving up: sleep, exercise, fun," Paumgarten writes, summarizing a study done by two University of Zurich economists. One, Alois Stutzer, told him: "[People] have to trade off social goods for material goods. This is very difficult for people. They make systemic mistakes. We are very good at predicting whether we'll like something but not at knowing for how long."

However, Puumgarten notes, this presupposes that people actually have a choice as to whether or not to engage in long commutes. In many areas of the country, living, working and shopping in a small area is all but impossible. "Postwar zoning laws aggressively separated living space from commercial space, requiring more roads and parking lots. . . .
"[Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone] likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five-minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. 'You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,' Putnam said. 'Where is your community?' The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to the store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul."

If you're interested in how lengthy commutes affect not only individuals but society when more and more people take "extreme commutes" of 3 hours a day or more, I definitely recommend reading the full article (April 16 of The New Yorker).


  1. Here is the article online:


  2. It's funny. That's a dark side of Atlanta we didn't see when we made our first visit to the city this past weekend. We got on the MARTA (subway) at the airport baggage claim and rode to within 2 blocks of our hotel. Each day we walked about a mile through Olympic Centennial Park to the Georgia Dome/World Congress Center. (During the rain, we used the subway.) Everywhere we ate was within a block of the hotel. In the same area were two of Atlanta's attractions, the CNN Center and the Aquarium. We never set foot in a car. Of course, we didn't see any residential areas either, and there lies the problem.