Monday, April 16, 2007

Commuting, Traffic, and the Soul

This morning I read a post on LA Biz Observed (an informative blog written by Mark Lacter that is part of the site LA Observed) about an article on commuting in The New Yorker titled, "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again: : The Soul of the Commuter." Lacter points out that Los Angeles was only briefly mentioned in the article, but he notes that the opening paragraph describes the herculean three hundred and seventy-two mile commute by a Cisco Systems engineer ("Sierra foothills to San Jose"). Lacter lists average yearly communing delays (hours in addition to normal commuting time) at the end of his post. Los Angeles and San Francisco lead the way with 93 hours and 72 hours respectively. That's a lot of lost time, but I'd guess that it's a low estimate. In the late 90s I worked as an assistant for two entertainment managers in Beverly Hills. My commute was roughly nine to ten miles on surface streets, yet it invariably took me forty-five minutes to an hour to commute. That's "soul-corroding" slow, to borrow from Nick Paumgarten, the author of the New Yorker article. What should be ascribed to as lost time is due to poor urban planning. (There's a reason why it's impossible to get to BH from anywhere—the wealthy keep freeways out of their neighborhood.)

Lost time in the car is wasted time, certainly. Were it not for NPR or KLON jazz (now KKJZ), I would have gone insane. Which leads to some interesting thoughts and research presented in the New Yorker article. Paumgarten describes how commuting dislocates the individual from civic and family life.
I was shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is,” Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, told me. (Putnam wrote the best-seller Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community about the disintegration of American civic life.) “There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”
Commuters are aware of their disconnect, but like others engaged in social pathologies, they do little to correct their situation. In addition, people tend not to be logical in their cost-benefit analysis:
Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. ...The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated.

"People with long journeys to and from work are systematically worse off and report significantly lower subjective well-being,” Stutzer told me. According to the economic concept of equilibrium, people will move or change jobs to make up for imbalances in compensation. Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun.

I no longer live in Los Angeles, and my daily commute is little over a mile. I live in a college town where life should be more pedestrian. It isn't exactly. Essentials are closer together (read Paumgarten's clever description of Putnam's living triangle), so there's less time wasted in the car. Do I have more social connections as a result? Probably not, though I may live longer; saved by fewer pains in my gut due to road rage.

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