Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why can't we internalize the cost of commuting?

Yesterday I was biking from Saint Paul to Minneapolis at rush hour. In to a stiff headwind, which shaved four or five miles per hour off my speed—more on downhills. However, when I crossed over Interstate 94 (*) just east of the Mississippi, I smiled. Both sides of the highway were parking lots. I probably wouldn't have gone any faster in a car.

I hate traffic. Actually, I should rephrase that. I hate being stuck in traffic. I love the concept of traffic, as long as it is not "solved" by building more roads. Livable cities have traffic. (They have transit as well. The ones with traffic and no transit, well …) I continued on a few blocks to my destination and, while I was not particularly happy fighting against the gale, I was glad I wasn't giving myself ulcers in a traffic jam.

There have been several recent articles about the fact that people are unable to properly calculate the cost—both economically, the time cost and the emotional distress—of a long commute. It's been called the commuter's paradox. The long and short of it comes down to the fact that people, when making an important decision (where to live) will worry about rare, very inconvenient occasions more than frequent and not-quite-so-inconvenient-but-still-bothersome occasions. In other words (mostly those of Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands):
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."
In addition to the environmental catastrophe of building and heating (or air conditioning) superfluous, unused rooms, people have convinced themselves that they need this extra space, and pay dearly for it: first when they buy something larger than necessary, and then when they spend hours a day in the car because they can't get anywhere without turning the ignition key. (Has no one heard of a fold-out bed or a hotel room? It's a lot cheaper than a bigger house.)

The article also goes in to the issue that the worst thing about traffic isn't that it's bad, but that it's unpredictable. With all sorts of technological advancements, the best we can do now are sporadic signs above the Interstate telling us how long we have left in this particular hell. With a little money, we could make the trains and buses run on time (the worst thing about a poorly functioning transit system is, generally, its unpredictability). Making traffic predictable, on the other hand, is all but impossible.

There's another piece up recently regarding a book about car dependence. It goes in to more of the economics, that we don't internalize the costs of driving because they are so ingrained in the American psyche. It's really a problem, and one that will take decades to fix. Whether the current economic status (and, yes, economics, not environmentalism, will be the driver of less automobile use) or higher gas prices will make a change is yet to be seen. However, it may be a generational change, and amongst a generation of always-plugged-in folks who see time in a car for what it is—almost completely wasted—we may see more people who are less interested in driving the latest, greatest shiny new automobile.

[ * Why is I-94 bad going west? Because in the course of about three miles there is a lane drop on the right (Riverside), a lane drop on the left (35W), two horrible merges on the right (from 35W and 11th), and then a sharp curve in to the Lowry Tunnel. There are no lanes which don't disappear or have just brutal merges. You can add all the suburban lane miles you want, but it won't address these bottlenecks.]

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