Monday, April 24, 2006
Extreme Commuting
From the name, it seems like it would involve a bungee cord or a hanglider.

From Newsweek: The Long and Grinding Road

(an extra point just for the pun)

So I'm not quite an "extreme commuter." According to the article, that category begins at 90+ minutes. Me? About 60-70 (it's generally faster getting home at night). I hop a MUNI train in the morning to catch a Google shuttle downtown. Of course, this puts me in a very strange category of being a more-than-an-hour commuter who doesn't use a car.

Now, among my varied interests is transportation economics (hey, I'm a hipster. What can I say?). I took two classes on it in college as part of my economics degree and found it fascinating—it piqued an interest in urban planning, public transportation, and land use. In Madison, these issues were present, but not pressing. But in the Bay Area (the amorphous blob encircling—or strangling, maybe—the San Francisco Bay), "pressing" would be an understatement. Among the reasons I was excited to fly out to initially interview with Google was to see BART (the getting the job thing and seeing the bridge were up there too).

Why do people commute such long distances? A few reasons:
  1. With the rise of the automobile, it's now possible. Large-scale long-distance commuting is almost entirely a 20th-and-21st-century phenomenon (but this wealthy-suburb pattern has been evident even in pre-industrial societies). Giant freeways in and out of cities have been essential for growth, but they've also fueled the proliferation of the suburbs.
  2. Housing prices. Land values are generally based on proximity to an urban center (with standard exceptions for waterfront and other geographic-feature related attributes). So, per square foot, housing gets cheaper the farther out one lives. But this isn't attractive only for people that can't afford to live in cities—wealthy folk flee the cities to build McMansions, for better schools, and an environment to better raise children in (Ironically, wealthy suburban enclaves pop up where the land values were initially quite low). The housing boom of the last few years has caused more families to extend their commutes in order to buy larger houses at lower prices.
The worse thing is that the population densities in suburbs is so low that it makes public transportation infeasible and leaves the automobile as the only viable option. This, in turn, fuels the growth of box-store style commercial development, generally only accessible by (wait for it...) car.

My latent sociologist (I don't let him out much) wonders what impact this has on community and family life. I was glad to see a reference to Robert Putnam in the article (I'm a big fan). Working hours have gotten longer. Commute times have gotten longer. That extra time has come at the expense of
  1. Sleep
  2. Family life
  3. Community involvement
Everything is interconnected. Where you place a road and how you design a city can vastly impact happiness, crime rates, or education quality. Like Putnam, I even like to point my finger at suburbia for the drop of civic involvement, decreased voting rates and disillusion with government.

There are butterflies flapping their wings everywhere.
Suburbs also use up arable land.
Yeah. I didn't even start on environmental impact...
nice post

(yeah, catching up up blogs)
Are non-googlers allowed on this dream machine? I will be working across the street starting next week (and commuting from SF) and am trying to avoid buying a car at all costs!
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