Back in 2001, Phil and I sat in the quiet courtyard of a boutique hotel on the edge of Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. We had just spent a few days tooling around Seattle without a car -- which meant that we pretty much went where we could walk or bus -- and we had a great time.
"Let's never choose the life where we have to drive everywhere," Phil suggested, and something felt so right about that idea, we've never wavered from it. This is why we have spent our married lives living in small, pricey places. But we always think, At least we're not spending it all driving around.
The upsides to lengthy commutes are few and far between. When I was in graduate school, I had a summer internship in downtown Washington, D.C., literally right across the street from the MacPherson Square stop on the Metro. Because I was broke as a joke (supra graduate school), my parents offered to let me live with them for free and I could catch a vanpool in the mornings.
Thing is, my parents had just relocated to what was then underdeveloped Stafford county. In order to get to my job by 8 a.m., I had to rise by 4:30, shower and be at the vanpool parking lot by 5. Then I sat smushed in a van with ten sullen strangers and my dad. And we sat. And we sat. The van dropped us off in Crystal City -- a surreal business park-cum-condo hive right near National Airport -- by 6:50 a.m., and then I caught the Metro into D.C. I had a half hour to myself before I had to be at my desk; I usually ate a picnic breakfast while sitting in front of the White House, just because I could.
At four p.m., I began the same trek in reverse, and got home around 7 p.m. in the evening. (For whatever reason, there is never a speedy escape from work.) I had maybe two hours before I passed out on top of my bed.
For a 23-year-old who had just come off five years of living, studying and working in walkable college communities, the idea of spending nearly five hours a day in a joyless slog between three separate modes of transit was soul-killing. By the fourth week, I was looking at roommate listings on Usenet; by the sixth, I had found a windowless basement room for $300 a month and a job moonlighting as a lifeguard on nights and weekends.
I still didn't have a car, but it didn't matter. I was free. Free to stay in the city and have drinks with the coworkers who wanted to know what the World Wide Web was. Free to stay out as late as I pleased without worrying about being stranded or having to call my dad to come up to Springfield to fetch me from a Metro stop. Free to live in a city, not merely spend ten times as much time getting to a place I had 30 minutes a day to explore.
So a deep-seated aversion to lengthy commutes took root early in my adult working life. I was lucky enough to skate by with living and working in a decent-sized radius -- the distance between Alameda and San Francisco (12 miles) being the longest -- for years, until circumstances lined up and I had to work down in Silicon Valley.
My workplace was 37 miles from my house. It never took less than 75 minutes to go door-to-door, and that was with leaving by 6:30 in the morning from the gym, or sprinting out of the newsroom at 3:55 to try and get out ahead of the rest of the four-o-clockers. It often took me two hours to get home. I lasted 14 months. The first year after I changed jobs, our transit costs dropped by $6,000.
Still, there were some benefits.
I had previously been indifferent to radio as a medium until I spent entire commutes listening to NPR's morning and afternoon lineups, Marketplace, and KQED's excellent California Report. Now I'm an ardent fan of public radio -- something that was not possible when my commute was a scanty 15 minute ferry ride capped by a 20-minute walk.
On Friday afternoons, as I was sitting in the parking lot that was I-880 north, I'd call my mom and we'd gab for the entire drive. It was the first time in either of our lives that we were able to just sit and talk, and it was a wonderful way to end the week.
But those tiny, twinkling bright spots were not enough to outshine the dirty haze of a morning spent in stalled traffic or the peculiar melancholy of watching a gorgeous sunset fading behind the bulk of big-box stores as the traffic announcer apologetically announces another accident at the San Mateo exchange.
And that is why, when I read summaries of Smart Growth America's recent study, "Measuring Sprawl and its Impact," all I can do is nod in recognition. LifeEdited posted a summary, which reads in part:
Several quality of life factors improve as [sprawl] index scores rise. Individuals in compact, connected metro areas have greater economic mobility. Individuals in these areas spend less on the combined cost of housing and transportation, and have greater options for the type of transportation to take. In addition, individuals in compact, connected metro areas tend to live longer, safer, healthier lives than their peers in metro areas with sprawl. Obesity is less prevalent in compact counties, and fatal car crashes are less common.
The Atlantic Cities blog has a piece by Richard Florida with a headline that's pure SEO-bait and/or meant to capture attention on Facebook feeds oversaturated with "This koala used to discriminate against the elderly. See the dancing flash mob that changed his mind!"-type crap.
What he took away from the study, however, is worth chewing on:
The analysis of Smart Growth America’s new Sprawl Index helps demonstrate that there are, essentially, two Americas: one sprawling and more conservative, the other far more compact, more affluent, more diverse, and more liberal.
Bear in mind that Richard Florida's firmly on the side of "Diverse, liberal and wealthy, hurrah!"
Studies like this seem tailor-made for the Journal of Duh, but I wonder: Exactly how are they going to be received by the world at large? If you're a website devoted to small-space living or urban policy, of course you're going to like the results here.
But what if you are someone who does live in one of those sprawling 'burbs? And you have the long drive? Exactly how are you supposed to take the results reported above?
I smell a reporting opportunity here. There are few lifestyle sites devoted to suburban sprawl -- which pretty much tells you where ad dollars are going these days -- but if we are a nation where a lot of people drive a lot of hours to and from their big houses, surely those people have something to say about why they choose that life every time they start the car.