July 28, 2006


Commuting Is a Drag (on the Economy) (Laura Rowley, July 28, 2006, Yahoo)

[Ron] Rogers is one of the 3.4 million workers that the Census Bureau has dubbed "extreme commuters." At least 2 percent of Americans wake up to a commute of 90 minutes or more one way. Not surprisingly, most of these workers live near major metropolitan centers: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, and Washington, D.C., have the most workers with extreme commutes.

The number of super-commuters nationwide has skyrocketed 95 percent since 1990, as workers hang on to lucrative jobs in city centers but move farther and farther afield in search of better housing, low crime, and good schools.

Unfortunately, commuting is a bitter pill that rarely gets easier to swallow. Researchers have found that people have the capacity for "hedonic adaptation" -- in laymen's terms, the ability to adjust to extreme circumstances, both happy and unhappy.

For instance, classic studies of lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims found only small differences in life satisfaction between these groups and control subjects. But certain experiences -- living near a noisy highway, for example -- become more aggravating over time, something scientists call "sensitization." Commuting falls into this category.

A 2004 study by two economists at the University of Zurich found that people tend to overestimate what they'll get by commuting long distances -- i.e., a bigger paycheck, a more prestigious position, the ability to buy more stuff -- and underestimate what it will cost them in stress, health, and loss of connection to family and friends. [...]

[Another] study suggests that our unwillingness to sacrifice our social lives at the office, combined with our love affair with cars, costs $3.9 billion in fuel and time annually.

You see this effect in action when folks pretend their cars liberate them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 28, 2006 2:35 PM

Yes, but how many of them actually commute by car?

I doubt very many making the NYC commute are driving. I suspect more come in by LIRR, NJT, MetroNorth, etc. Heck, the commute from certain pts of Queens and Staten Island to Maanhattan can be well more than an hour by bus and subway.

Is a 1 1/2 hour commute each way by choo-choo train more liberating?

Commuting sux, no matter how its done.

(Have you ever read Chesterton on cars btw? Takes a slightly (i.e radically) different stance to yours.)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 28, 2006 2:48 PM

cars were fine when they went 20 mph and only the rich had them.

Posted by: oj at July 28, 2006 2:53 PM

Jim, the other reason OJ hates cars is they're about the last place left you can legally smoke.

Posted by: John Resnick at July 28, 2006 3:04 PM

Some people are making 50+ mile commutes to Washington because they can't afford the area's housing costs. They'll drive regardless of the price of gas. Of course this means leaving for work before 0500 in order to beat the traffic.

Others, who can afford to live inside the Beltway, reside in places like Frederick or Fredericksburg so they can have a bigger house. ("I've got twice the house at half the price" a co-worker once boasted to me.) I can understand their feelings but I don't think the trade-off is worth it.

Posted by: George at July 28, 2006 3:45 PM

Is a 1 1/2 hour commute each way by choo-choo train more liberating?

Somewhat. If it's going to be 90 minutes I'd rather be able to sit and have the opportunity to read.

One reason not mentioned in the article for long distance commuting is marriage and two-income families. Anyone familiar with northern Virginia knows the two-income family where one spouse works in the DC/NoVA area and the other works in Maryland near BWI or, God forbid, Baltimore. It's just about possible, but not very pleasant.

Posted by: John Thacker at July 28, 2006 3:48 PM

The growth of the hyper-commute has created interest in reviving some dormant passenger rail lines. New Jersey Transit and the State of Pennsylvania are discussing reviving the rail line between Scranton and N.Y.C. along the I-80/380 corridor, because the completion of the interstate 30 years ago has led to a boom in folks communting as far away as Stroudsburg and The Poconos into Manhattan.

With the advent of iPods and laptops with wireless Internet, commutes like that are not as restricting as they used to be as far as making the travel time productive/entertaining. But from the rail operators' point of view, unless you have a city with a concentrated business area, so that all your riders want to go to the same location, it's still going to be more cost-effective to haul freight than people.

Posted by: John at July 28, 2006 4:50 PM

"3.4 million workers."

I say we should give it the same immediate concerned attention we pay to similarly itsy-bitsy minorities. I'm not shy to come out in favor of letting extreme commuters marry each other.

Posted by: David Cohen at July 28, 2006 4:56 PM

Thirteen miles, 23 minutes each way. The average national commute is only 26. Someone release us from this bondage...

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 28, 2006 5:06 PM

Agree with joe. Nine miles, 15 minutes. Get to live in a beautiful home, 1/3 acre, pool, etc,. Release me from this bondage.

Posted by: Jdkelly at July 28, 2006 6:29 PM

There's another side of the "bondage" to the auto that's just as important as Joe's and Jdkelly's point. Because we have cars--and one of them a big, evil Urban Assault Vehicle, next week we're taking off for the wilderness near Mt. Adams. Sure, we could find something to rent that would take us there, but because we own the car, we've tailored all our camping equipment around what fits in it, etc. And while this particular trip has been planned for quite some time, we can and do make similar outings on the spur of the moment.
Now, some people may like being trapped in their Urbanity, Grand Canyon-style, and if that's truly their choice, more power to them. But to try to make everyone fit in that mold....

Posted by: Kirk Parker at July 28, 2006 8:34 PM