Americans, Big Homes, Long Commutes, Health and Hazards

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123 Responses

  1. Lyle says:

    Given the atrocious character of inner city schools, the commute in many cases could be a sacrifice for the children in addition to the issues cited. Note in particular that the desire for large single family homes tends to go up when children are added to the family. Note also that some people just like to be alone, and the urbanists seem to regard this as a bad thing. In dense living environments you will hear the neighbors thru the walls, unless double cinder block walls were used between units, but that is to expensive for builders. Also compared to rural areas urban areas are generally noiser with all the police and fire activity, as well as greater traffic noise.
    Anyway it seems that people forget that in reasonably flat country there is an alternative to walking the bicycle, which raises the radius one can go to 4 to 5 miles. In suburban areas that does allow one to get to places without a car.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Lyle says:

      It depends on the street lay out of the suburban area. If you need to cross major high ways and free ways to get outside your residential area, most people are going to want the protection of the car rather than to risk it on a bicycle.Report

      • Lyle in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Having bicycled in Houston from the 1980s to 2000s (which was not then a bike friendly city) it is doable. Of course 1 no ear buds or cell phones while riding. you need to listen to the traffic. Second you need to get an idea of the street layout and how to minimize the time you stay on major streets. Interestingly it was easier in the older parts of towns with more thru side streets. Sometimes cut thru parking lots as well. Of course you wear a helmet and bright clothing for visibility. (Houston has the advantage of absolutely no hills however)
        If one is talking a mile or two to the grocery store it is surprising how much stuff you can put in panniers, back packs are not a good idea on a bike since they raise the center of gravity.
        Then at the store one may have to look for a tall sign or the like to lock the bike to. But it is doable and extends the range one can get to to up to 3 or 4 miles.
        Of course where I live now is 300 feet higher in elevation than the main road so it is not bikeable without a major period of walking the bike.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Lyle says:

      Given the atrocious character of inner city schools, the commute in many cases could be a sacrifice for the children in addition to the issues cited

      Speaking anecdotally, I have friends who have done this very thing for this very reason. We’ve considered it ourselves, not just for the schools/crime/pollution (actual and noise) factors but because although we are in a single-family home, we could get MUCH more space than our 1600-sq-ft that currently houses 5 people and two decent-sized dogs 24/7. When friends or family come over, that gets tight. You might get mental and physical exhaustion from a commute, but you also get it from living on top of each other. Maybe a soak in your nice private pool helps unwind you from that long drive.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Lyle says:

      1. Not all urban schools are horrible.

      2. I am not sure that rural school districts are that much better. Or they have their own problems as opposed to inner-ring suburban school districts.

      3. I like my downtime and alone time too and I am perfectly capable of doing this in my one-bedroom apartment. I am sympathetic to the idea that families need more space but you can be alone and have a family without needing a 5000 square feet McMansion. If you have kids running around, you aren’t really alone anyway.

      4. Lee is correct on the bicycle thing. I was in Pleasanton, CA last week for court. Pleasanton does have a charming downtown area that is nice to walk around but it is really hard to bike or walk there from many areas. When you enter Pleasanton, there are more sections with huge four lane avenues that are not very Pedistrian or bike friendly.Report

      • aarondavid in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        1. Not all urban schools are horrible.
        No, but enough are, and that creates a crap shoot of which neighborhoods feed those schools, with corresponding high prices.

        2. I am not sure that rural school districts are that much better
        Well, one would assume that the people who are making these commutes are looking into that before they move. It is part of the calculus they make when deciding on this. Or not.

        3. I like my downtime and alone time too and I am perfectly capable of doing this in my one-bedroom apartment. I am sympathetic to the idea that families need more space but you can be alone and have a family without needing a 5000 square feet McMansion. If you have kids running around, you aren’t really alone anyway.

        Well, it can mean giving kids there own rooms, it can mean having a study, gardening space, a kitchen that one who enjoys cooking will have enough room to work in. A back yard for kids to build forts or other permanent structures in, workshops if you have hobbies that require that. Also, having kids running around is one thing, but adding neighbors banging away at 2am when they (and you) are trying to sleep is extra fun.

        4. Lee is correct on the bicycle thing. I was in Pleasanton, CA last week for court. Pleasanton does have a charming downtown area that is nice to walk around but it is really hard to bike or walk there from many areas. When you enter Pleasanton, there are more sections with huge four lane avenues that are not very Pedistrian or bike friendly.
        All true, but if you are older, bicycling in SF, Oakland or Berkeley is not much fun either, due to traffic, hills etc.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to aarondavid says:

          FTR, y’all are using a faulty definition for the word “rural.”Report

          • Chris in reply to Will Truman says:

            I’m not sure any of the areas in the OP would be considered rural, in fact. Or at least the vast majority of the areas would not.Report

          • aarondavid in reply to Will Truman says:

            I am using the term is it appears in the OP. I grew up in a part of CA that, while it has a fantastic university, parts are massively rural, like west TX rural.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to aarondavid says:

              I don’t doubt that there are rural parts of California. I do doubt that there are rural parts of California people are commuting to SF from.Report

              • While the Census Bureau keeps mucking with their definition, the one that has been the easiest to understand defined rural as “more than 25 miles from any city/town with a population over 25,000 people”. My guess is that you’re right, and would have to be a long way out from anything in the Bay Area to get to rural by that definition. Depending on exactly how the CB sets the definition, California and New Jersey go back and forth as the state with the smallest percent of rural population. The most recent data set I’ve seen has California on top.Report

            • Chris in reply to aarondavid says:

              Loving County rural?

              Perhaps ironically, because Loving County has almost nowhere to live, much less anyone living there, most of the people who work there (in the oil industry) commute there from more populous places (maybe Kermit).Report

            • Alan Scott in reply to aarondavid says:

              In the comments of this post, Kolohe categorized American public schools into three types. It’s an incredibly on-point classification scheme.

              Type 1 schools are generally suburban and serve the children of the upper middle class.

              Type 2 schools are the classic “inner city” schools, largely defined by poverty of the students they serve.

              Type 3 schools are schools serving small rural communities, and therefore wind up with a more economically heterogeneous group of students.

              People leaving the city for good schools are trying to leave type 2 schools to get at the type 1 schools. That said, they’ll settle for the type 3 schools if they have to.

              The area AaronDavid grew up in, where I currently live, has type 1, type 2, and type 3 schools in relatively close proximity.Report

              • Brandon Berg in reply to Alan Scott says:

                I would amend type 1’s definition to strike the qualifier “upper.” Or add a fourth type. Because there’s a huge swath of the American population, probably the majority, which is neither upper-middle-class, urban poor, nor rural.

                Actually, checking Kolohe’s comment, he didn’t say upper-middle-class.

                The blog software updates have not been kind to that post.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Alan Scott says:

                Yeah, every time I read about people locating to get ‘better schools’, I have to remind myself people are probably talking about a different neighborhood. Not a different county.

                Where I went to school, you went to the county elementary school(1), then the county middle school, then the county high school. Hopefully in that order. Everyone went there, in fact, there weren’t really any *private* schools, at least not fancy ones for the rich. (The one we heard most about was a military-ish academy that troublemakers would end up at if expelled.) And this was before homeschooling caught on, so (for example) almost every single 11 year old in the entire county could be located in one location during a school day.

                This isn’t true anymore, they’ve added schools(2), but they did it via ‘put the new schools near secondary population centers and divide the remaining county equally’, not the political stuff that seems to follow schools lines in urban areas. And it’s actually still one school district so presumably funding is equalish, and teachers sometimes find themselves moved from physical building to physical building.

                1) Well, you first went to primary school, but my family was living in Atlanta during that, so I did go to a neighborhood school for that. Then we moved to the north Georgia mountains.

                1) My class size was about 140. By the time of my senior year, the incoming 1st graders were closer to 300.Report

              • nevermoor in reply to DavidTC says:

                Not in SF (which we seem to be discussing specifically in different places).

                Moving within SF doesn’t influence your school assignment much. You need to move to one of several surrounding counties to be guaranteed a good public school.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

            If there are viable farms in the area, it is rural!!!


  2. Chris says:

    1. I think these commutes are insane.

    Then the people who choose them are also insane.

    If such commutes were entirely the result of economic and other structural conditions, then we might reasonably say that our policies are insane. However, as the examples illustrate, they are largely, if not entirely the result of personal choices: 5 bedrooms instead of 3, 3,000 square feet instead of 1,200, a big yard instead of a nearby park, etc. If you choose to have a 90 minute commute, you’re the only one to blame for your 90 minute commute.

    And quite frankly, if you choose a 90 minute commute, particularly in a single-occupant vehicle, you are the problem.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:

      I largely agree. A large part of this is the bowling alone phenomenon where community pools and parks are considered inferior and less than desirable to public parks and pools.

      I don’t quite understand the appeal of a backyard pool. We always went to the community and public pools growing up and they were fine.Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to Chris says:

      It seems nuts to me.

      If nothing else, I’d look at the combination of house and waking hours spent in it. Owning a personal swimming pool you never have time to swim in leads to less actual swimming than being near a YMCA or municipal pool, and having time to go there.

      In the example here:
      24 hours – 8 hours work – 8 hour sleep – 4.5 hours commute – .5 hours sundry errands = 3 hours a day awake in the house.
      3 hours * 3000 square feet (say) = 9000 square-foot-hours

      “Squeezing” into 1000 square feet:
      24 hours – 8 hours work – 8 hours sleep – .5 hours commute – .5 hours sundry errands = 7 hours awake in the house
      7 hours * 1000 square feet = 7000 square-foot-hours

      Not so far off all of a sudden. If you assign any negative value at all to time spent sitting in a car or train commuting, as opposed to a null value, then you come out ahead.

      I also find the ‘shock horror we’d only have 1000 square feet’ thing funny, as our house is somewhere around 750-800 square feet, and I love it…Report

  3. LeeEsq says:

    The Atlantic had an interesting story on how the charming early 20th century neighborhoods in places like Seattle, Portland, and Chicago with their bungalow houses were considered to be eyesores by the urbanists and aesthetes of the time period. They thought that 1600 square foot bungalows were too big for what the American family needed. Now these neighborhoods are considered highly desirable but are generally illegal to build because of strict zoning regulations. NIMBYs are very intent to keep these regulations in place for a variety of reasons. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    The Post-War American suburb was probably one of the greatest social engineering experiments of all time. The public housing estates are considered to be one of the ultimate example of government social engineering by their opponents but the car-oriented and strictly zoned American suburb would not have come into being without the decision to favor roads and airplanes above public transportation, strict government land use requirements, and policies to keep African-Americans in the cities like red-lining. Real estate developers would probably have developed something close to the suburb but the lots and houses would have been smaller so they could sell more of it.

    As for e-commuting, I think the answer is clear that a lot of bosses really want to have their employees in place where they could directly supervise them. A lot of people might also not be computer competent enough to do e-commuting.Report

    • Lyle in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I was reading a book on the history of Chicago and it pointed out that sprawl began with the electric street car. The trick if a real estate developer at the time was to figure out where the end of the line was going to be and buy land there to develop. Also for Chicago the land around the first and second stations from town on the railroads was a good place to develop.Report

  4. DensityDuck says:

    Telecommuting pretty much sucks if you’re in a job that depends on collaboration.

    Although a big part of that is American workplace culture, which still prioritizes communications depending on mode. “in-person speech” is highly privileged, followed by telephone calls, chat messages, and finally email. Collaboration would certainly be easier if people didn’t have the attitude that “email = words = unimportant, if this really mattered you’d be standing here talking to me about it”.

    “I am largely with urban advocates who think that Americans need to live more densely”

    Then you should hate, hate, HATE telecommuting, because that enables less-dense living.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

      A million years ago, a group of co-workers got snatched up by a particular application company that was based in one of those “less expensive” parts of the country. Like “$50,000 for a 2000 square foot house with a fenced yard” parts of the country (granted, these were Clinton dollars).

      The jobs they were offered by this application company didn’t pay a *WHOLE* lot… something like $45,000 (again, Clinton dollars) but they were living in a place where a mortgage payment was $500.

      I always wondered why outsourcing didn’t turn into homesourcing…Report

    • dragonfrog in reply to DensityDuck says:

      The only colleague of mine who telecommutes every day, lives in a much denser municipality than all the rest of us – specifically, he lives 3500 km away, in the densest city in the country.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    Why aren’t you advocating for extension of commuter rail, like BART? That engineer who commutes from the East Bay to San Jose would seem exactly the sort of person that BART-to-San-Jose is for. Why is so much time and effort being spent explaining why people who like houses are bad and wrong, and so little spent on showing how many lives would be improved by Federal funding to get BART to Silicon Valley done faster? (Hell, even finishing out the planned Berryessa terminal would help, because it would connect to the local Light Rail system.)Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to DensityDuck says:

      I am all for this too.Report

    • Troublesome Frog in reply to DensityDuck says:

      If I had a time machine, I’d do a Terminator-style go back in time and kill the mothers of the people who decided that BART to the South Bay was a silly idea back when it would have been cheap and easy to do. Now, instead of having enjoyed it for 40 years as the tech industry boomed and commutes became a nightmare, we’re trying to grind it in a step at a time through some of the most expensive property and NIMBYest voters in the world. I can’t imagine the billions of dollars that decision has cost us.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

        Marin should have also been forced to have taken a BART line/Report

        • nevermoor in reply to LeeEsq says:

          We TRIED. Marin back then just didn’t have the $$$ and no one wanted to mess with the GGB.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to nevermoor says:

            The Golden Gate Bridge would be a probably. I wonder if an under water tunnel would have been feasible like with the Tran Bay Tube for the East Bay BART.Report

            • nevermoor in reply to LeeEsq says:

              It’s much harder since the water is deep and the headlands are high. And there are all kinds of messy problems with something like a Pier 39 -> Sausalito underwater link.

              The world would be a better place if it had been done when Marin was a sparsely-populated hippie refuge. Now, though, you’re probably talking $10B or more since you also have to connect to existing BART either through the Richmond or around the water under the MUNI rail line. I, of course, could support that but I also recognize that many would not.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Troublesome Frog says:


        I’m talking out my ass here, but surely the whole region would have developed differently if BART was more extensive from the get go, no?Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

          You can google for original BART plans and find something very ambitious that was supposed to go well past Marin in the North and into Solano in the EastReport

        • aarondavid in reply to Kazzy says:

          Mmm, I don’t know. Many of the areas that people wish BART served are already pretty developed, such as North bay and the peninsula. San Jose is bigger than SF, but I don’t know how much real commuting is done between the two, rather, the peninsula being the destination.

          The light rail/subway thing is kinda chicken/egg, in relation to development. Sure people will move to an area if there is transit, but that only makes a difference if it goes to a place that they want. If it goes to a spot that is several miles from the desination, then, no, people don’t care. But people will move to an area that has no transit, if the pricing (time/place/etc.) works out.

          Since you quoted me talking about how rural my hometown was, I grew up halfway between LA and SF, about 200 miles either way. No one was commuting to the city.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to aarondavid says:

            My apologies, @aarondavid . I’m actually not sure how I quoted you. I was on the phone so I’ll blame that.

            To you and Saul and the rest, I guess what I’m saying is that if BART went to the South Bay or where ever else starting 40 years ago, than the South Bay probably wouldn’t be what it is today. I’m not saying it’d be better or worse by any particular metric… it’d just be different. Surely some (most? all?) of the folks and businesses that are there now were able to afford going there because the area wasn’t BART friendly. If the area had mass transit from the get go, it’d probably have a whole different character.

            Or maybe not. I really can’t say as I don’t know the intricacies of the specific area. I’m just a little curious about looking backwards without considering how that change back then would have set off a chain reaction.Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

              The areas served by BART are still rather suburban in appearance while San Jose, originally supposed to be served but not served, is a full fledged and fairly dense city by American standards. Serving the South Bay might have kept more jobs in San Francisco itself since commuting to and from the South Bay would be easier but that is probably about it at most.

              When BART was planned and built, San Francisco was imagined as the Manhattan of the Bay Area. People were supposed to commute from the burbs to San Francisco for work and entertainment and live in the burbs. San Francisco still probably has a rather high percentage of Bay area jobs but there was still a lot of suburbanization of work compared to New York.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Given the industries that pushed the huge San Jose growth, maybe or maybe not. No way do the integrated circuit fabs go into San Francisco proper — too many nasty toxic chemicals stored in too large quantities, and very large horizontal footprints that do not lend themselves to vertical arrangements (same reasons that IC fabs ended way out on the peripheries in Ireland, Germany, etc). Unlikely that any of the math, software, and support services go into SF instead of staying with the fabs. Nor does the entire industry that supports the fabs (Applied Materials, etc) go into SF instead of SJ.Report

            • aarondavid in reply to Kazzy says:

              No sweat @kazzy

              And you are right, there is no telling how it would have worked out. My guess is that the North bay would be much more dense, but I don’t think that SJ would be too changed. But, I have said in the past that SF can work the way it does because of all the places lite SJ and Oakland pick up a lot of the uncool slack of the city, much like Jersey seems* to for NYC. Things like junk yards, used car lots, warehouses etc. Businesses that need a high land to profit ratio.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to aarondavid says:

                There are still lots of “uncool” but necessary parts of NYC. They tend to be located on the outer fringes of Manhattan like 10th and 11th avenues or in the outer boroughs but they exist. People in Manhattan do own cars and they don’t want to have to drive to Jersey or even Queens to get it filled up or repaired.Report

  6. North says:

    Frankly the people you’re talking here about are impenetrable to policy. Short of some kind of government space folding technology you’re never going to get them to live close in. So build dense and let the people who prioritize their giant houses that way commute. It’s not like San Fran or Los Angeles have dense urban housing that is sitting empty due to lack of desire. On the contrary there’re lines around the block for dense urban housing whenever the powers that be let it get built.Report

    • Glyph in reply to North says:

      SF in particular is situated at the nexus of its geography and history (much of that happening now) that make it a pretty special case from which we should maybe not try to generalize much.Report

      • North in reply to Glyph says:

        True, but you don’t find dense urban housing sitting empty in any of the dense urban cores.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Glyph says:

        Manhattan is another special case based on its age and one-off geography.Report

        • And Seattle. There is a pattern here.Report

          • Glyph in reply to Will Truman says:

            High smug levels?

            (I kid, I kid).Report

            • Chris in reply to Glyph says:

              You can’t see the sun in either?Report

              • dragonfrog in reply to Chris says:

                Every example of a high density city in the US is a special case from which we must not try to learn anything generalizable?Report

              • Kolohe in reply to dragonfrog says:

                Every urban area in the United States has formed from a unique set of geographic, economic, technological, and historical factors.Report

              • I would have phrased cause and effect differently: the only cases of high-density cities in the US are in places where geography imposed significant limits during the time when their most rapid growth occurred.

                Lately I’ve been looking at distance-weighted density for metro areas, which gives (I think) a better metric for multiple reasons. New York and San Francisco still top the list, but LA is third and San Jose is sixth. When you look at the top 30 or so, a surprising number (at least as I read the conventional wisdom) are western cities and California in particular. Geography arguments still come into play. Many western cities are constrained by mountains and federal land holdings. While Denver is unconstrained by geography to the east, there are a bunch of reasons why people don’t want to live too far out in that direction.Report

              • Chris in reply to Michael Cain says:

                This is the statistic that the census bureau is now using:


              • dragonfrog in reply to Chris says:

                That makes sense.

                My city has a very low density, but it looks especially low-density if you don’t account for the vast tracts of farmland that are technically inside city limits.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Michael Cain says:

                I would have phrased cause and effect differently: the only cases of high-density cities in the US are in places where geography imposed significant limits during the time when their most rapid growth occurred.


                Americans refuse to do density unless density is imposed on them by outside forces. (I wouldn’t limit that to ‘geography’ *necessarily*, but I can’t think of any other force that has done it.)

                The odd thing is, once density *exists*, people are perfectly willing to live there. There is basically no part of the country that people go ‘I couldn’t live there, too many people’, or at least there’s not enough people doing that to keep the place unoccupied. (Now, density often goes along with *other* things that keep people away, but it’s not the density itself.)Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to DavidTC says:

                “The odd thing is, once density *exists*, people are perfectly willing to live there. ”

                Well, there are people and there are people. Housing in urban metro areas is expensive because it’s in demand; it stands to reason that if you build more then it will be occupied. That doesn’t mean that there are not just as many people who prefer single-family homes as there were before, though.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to DensityDuck says:

                That doesn’t mean that there are not just as many people who prefer single-family homes as there were before, though.

                My point was more that, while there are a very vocal group of people who insist that they *must* live spaced out…

                …at some point we need to just realize that if we build densely, people will fill up the dense housing anyway. Yes, there are plenty of very loud people who say they won’t live there, but I think we often forget that ‘plenty of very loud people’, in the US, can be as small as 10% of the population.

                I’m actually rather convinced this (spoken, but not actual) refusal to live densely has a lot more to do with class and/or race than anything else. Not specifically being *against* certain classes or races, but just having learned ‘successful white people get their own house in a subdivision 30 minutes from a city, not an apartment’.

                And I wonder how millennials and their housing oddities are going to change that.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to DavidTC says:

                “at some point we need to just realize that if we build densely, people will fill up the dense housing anyway.”

                Nobody is, nor has anyone ever, suggested that building more housing in metro areas would result in that housing staying vacant.

                The discussion here is what to do about all those darn people who insist that they prefer single-family houses with yards and are willing to move out of the city to get them.

                I’m actually rather pleased to see you stay true to type. Not, like, believing there’s any valid reason people might want more space to live in; no, it’s all false consciousness and racism.Report

              • nevermoor in reply to DensityDuck says:

                I think people really want things to stay the same, no matter whether the’ll ultimately prefer the alternative.

                For example, my city (of granola liberals at the time) tried really hard to keep Whole Foods out of a vacant building because ZOMG the traffic! Then WF opened, everyone loved it, and traffic kept on keeping on.

                I expect the same thing to happen again if the county follows through on its plans to build some apartment buildings near by. People would make friends with the new residents, benefit as their business allowed for more restaurants, and traffic would keep on keeping on.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to DensityDuck says:

                The discussion here is what to do about all those darn people who insist that they prefer single-family houses with yards and are willing to move out of the city to get them.

                Uh, actually, it’s not.

                I quote: The report mentions that this problem has been caused by several decades of housing policy choices and non-choices.

                The question presented to us *starts with* the assumption that we have really stupid housing policy that refuses to build densely, and that better policy would sold most problems….and then asks if *everyone* would actually live densely. I.e., this discussion is if said people actually exist or not.

                Which is a fair questions, but of course, if we’d build denser, then *everyone* would have shorter commutes, including the people who under no circumstances would consider living denser.

                The question proposed is actually somewhat pointless…if we were to build ‘the dense housing that fulfilled the dreams of neo-liberals and urbanphiles everywhere’, than, okay, we might end up with some of the population that refused to play…and thus had to commute *30 minutes* from the subdivision next door. Oh noes!

                Nobody is, nor has anyone ever, suggested that building more housing in metro areas would result in that housing staying vacant.

                Than it sure is odd we keep refusing to actually do that.

                I’m actually rather pleased to see you stay true to type. Not, like, believing there’s any valid reason people might want more space to live in; no, it’s all false consciousness and racism.

                Uh, no. In fact, I specifically *didn’t* mention racism, which I don’t think is super relevant here, generally. Just because someone mentions race doesn’t mean they’re talking about racism. I said that white people have been taught to have a specific goal in mind that proves they are successful. I don’t think, at this point in time, very many of them would have problems with successful black people joining them in the suburbs…I just said ‘white people’ there because I think black people are being presented with a different model of ‘success outcome’.

                And it’s not ‘false consciousness’…people do not have some sort of genetically inbuilt way they want to live.(1) Almost *all* that is created by society, as evidenced by the fact that, over human history, people have had *absurdly* different ideas of how much space individual people need.

                In fact, right now, it sure is odd how the people who grew up in big cities seem to find nothing odd about very dense living, and the people who grew up very spread out seem to find nothing odd about that. It’s almost as if it’s completely learned behavior.

                1) Actually, people do seem to have some sort of ideal level of ‘neighbors’ they want, the group of people they think are part of their life. But they’ll just make that out of the ~100 or so people they most regularly interact with. This provides, arguably, a slight argument towards to denser living, where at least people will interact with that many people normally. (But, then again, that’s why suburbs invented book clubs and bowling leagues, so it’s pretty easy to overcome that shortcoming.)Report

  7. Tod Kelly says:

    At the risk of this sounding hostile (I swear it isn’t intended to be), aren’t people like you a big chunk of the problem here, Saul? (To the extent that there is problem; I don’t think there is.)

    In other posts about you and your career, my impression is that you could easily choose to move and greatly improve your chances for success as an attorney, but that for your own reasons living/working in SF is such a strong part of your desired self-identity that it makes everything else worth it. (Or at least, it has so far.) You make sacrifices most people wouldn’t because you believe being an attorney in SF translates to something that working as an attorney in, say, Boise does not — even though Boise might offer more $ and more job security in an less expensive environment.

    This seems no different to me than a person who chooses a career/housing situation where they work at company X but live in SF proper. As with you, even though it clearly introduces barriers to a more perfect lifestyle, it’s worth it to them to say about themselves “I live in X and work at Y.”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I am not sure I am the problem. I’ve pointed out that other reasons I look to and fight to live in certain areas is because they have large Jewish populations and/or are liberal enough that everyone is super-understanding to commitments that place you in a minority.

      Why is the Jewish thing so hard for so many people to grasp in these conversations?Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Man oh man, did my comment ever miss it’s target!

        I’ll try again:

        You’re not “a problem,” Saul. But neither are people who make different life choices than you might. That’s the point.

        Look, you’ve just written a post about people who make lifestyle and career choices you would not, and declared them insane and a problem that needs to be fixed.

        If I might offer a bit of kindly old man advice, you would do well as a writer to take your reaction to people saying to you, “well why don’t you just make different life choices,” and then with that fresh in your mind, try to see things from POV of the people make life choices you would not.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Interestingly the only people who seem to get the want to stay around other Jewish people thing also tend to be in minority groups. When I’ve brought it up, people in other minority groups (blacks, Asians, Latinos, LGBT, etc.) chime in with “We get it.”Report

      • Replace Boise with Cleveland, Las Vegas, Tucson, Buffalo, or any other more affordable city with a substantial Jewish population…Report

        • North in reply to Will Truman says:

          Don’t forget Florida!Report

        • gingergene in reply to Will Truman says:

          Tuscon has 1/10 of the Jewish population of San Francisco and Buffalo has 1/20. In terms of communities, I would compare absolute numbers as well as relative populations; both are critical. (This is in addition to all the difficult-to-quickly-google things like history or how the smaller community in question fits with the large community, etc. etc.)Report

          • Will Truman in reply to gingergene says:

            Then Atlanta! Denver! And a host of other metros (including Vegas and Cleveland) with substantial numerical Jewish populations. I can understand the desire not to be completely isolated, but the options are not SF/NYC or Boise.

            (In Saul’s specific case, “family” does provide a compelling reason to want to be in one of those two cities, though. No substitute for that.)Report

            • Alan Scott in reply to Will Truman says:

              Yeah, I think it’s a lot less about being isolated from other Jews and a lot more about being not overwhelmed by a monolithic block of WASPs.

              San Francisco and its surrounding communities are one of the most ethnically diverse, if not the most diverse, metro areas in the US. When you’re a member of a minority, the fact that your community is made up of, and therefore must cater to, a collection of minorities is much more important than measuring exactly what percentage of the population belong to your particular tribe.Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Will Truman says:

          Hell, Knoxville has a substantial Jewish population. Five or six thriving temples, take your pick between reform, conservative, and orthodox. (If you’re Haredi, maybe you’re in a bit of a pickle.) And the cost of living is low, low, low.

          There’s five temples in my own exurb of L.A., 75 minutes’ drive from downtown. I know some people who go to one of those temples and who commute every day to DTLA.

          Seems to me that there’s a reasonable opportunity in quite a lot of places for people who identify as Jewish to find temples where they can worship and fellow Jewish-self-identified folks with whom to congregate and mingle. That’s a reason I sort of resist buying in to the notion that being Jewish requires living in a densely-urban area of a top-ten city. It might be easier to be Jewish in such an area, but it’s still quite possible to be Jewish in a suburb or an exurb or a smaller city.

          One might want to live in a top-ten city for a lot of reasons and easy access to a religious congregation may well be one of them. But if the principal concern is access to a congregation, that isn’t all that hard to do in smaller cities or satellites.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

            At the risk of being called a partisan hack, I also like living in areas where the Ds rule or are likely to rule.

            FWIW, I am very used to the NYC idea of culture for better and for worse. I’ve brought this up before but I like my Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival, Lincoln Center Festival, Film Forum, BAMRosecinemas, Quad Cinemas, etc. Maybe this is snobby but it is what I like. I’ve written before about how when it comes to culture type of stuff it seems society is always trapped in a conservation of people trying to sell others on what they don’t want or need.

            A woman tried to upsell Columbus because of their zoo to me and the only thought in my head is but I don’t really care about zoos that much. Just like most people don’t get excited by the chance of seeing Cheek by Jowl or the Propeller Company at BAM every few years or so.Report

            • Different strokes… I know a man whose passion is restoring hundred-year-old (or more, sometimes much more) music boxes. Not the little tinkley ones — multiple octave combs and fine wood cabinetry. He can’t make a living at it; in fact, it seems to me that he takes jobs for pay because they present interesting problems as much as anything. He and his wife live in a modest 800-900 square foot house. Out at the back of the lot is his 300 square foot workshop, with all of the tools and materials acquired over his life. It’s a hobby that’s probably out of reach for most people living in an urban core because of the space required.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Hence the rise of Urban Maker SpacesReport

              • For my modest needs, probably. For this guy?

                The last time I visited his workshop, he showed me his current major project that came in some months ago. Someone dropped something heavy into a $30K antique music box. He was, slowly, repairing individual teeth in the comb, including casting individual lead weights, reconstructing the tuning for that comb from the cylinders that played in the box, reproducing screws from ~1750 with pitches that were unique to the shop that built the box, then starting on restoring the cabinetry. Probably three years worth of part-time effort before he’s done. Long stretches of time where semi-assembled parts have to stay put on a workbench.

                One of my favorite pieces of gear in his shop is the treadle-powered lathe that lets him rotate music box cylinders at low RPMs — single-digit RPMs in some cases, and reversible — with hair-thin brass pins rubbing against a fine-grain stone to true the whole thing to a couple thousandths of an inch. Putting a restored 250-year-old cylinder in a box preserves the value for collectors; putting a contemporary reproduction, which is much faster and cheaper, destroys collector value.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                That is ridiculously cool!

                And yeah, that is probably beyond a Maker Space. I have seen places that build shops/garages (think storage units but with 110v & 220v) & then sell them as low cost industrial property to individuals. Works well enough if you have nothing else but I could see it being a pain if its far away.Report

              • I met the guy because I inherited this bad boy. The mechanisms are fascinating, from the brute force parts that run the changer and lift punched steel disks into position to play to the musical comb parts finished to a few thousands of an inch tolerance.Report

              • When next in Los Angeles, make arrangements to visit the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar.Report

              • North in reply to Michael Cain says:

                You inherited that?!? I am CONSUMED by envy. It is exquisite!!Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Not sure if that is awesome, or a modern albatross…

                (I’m leaning toward awesome)Report

              • I also lean towards awesome, although it has one similarity to boats: a hundred-year-old disc music box is a cabinet into which you can pour an infinite amount of money. Even when you can’t think of a single extra thing to do to the box, there are the discs. There were originally hundreds of titles produced. There are a couple of places today that will, if you can show the proper copyright permissions, arrange new titles to fit the limits of the medium and punch up a disc for you. Arranging is a fine art — not only are there limits to how often you can play which notes, there’s a distinctive music box “style”. It wouldn’t be enough just to do a 60-second version of Stairway to Heaven; you want it to sound like it was intended for a music box.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

            It isn’t about finding a congregation per se but I do think you are underestimating being lost in megachurch land and the awkwardness of being around people who use Good Christian as a being identical or equivalent to Good Person and why this might be offensive to non-Christians. My Jewish friends who grew up or lived for part of their lives in the Midwest and South are filled with stories about being the one person not bowing their head in prayer before meetings or meals with co-workers and/or being called Good Christians to more casual anti-Semitism like having people think saying “Jew the price down” is a good idea.

            Now there are plenty of anti-Semites all over including liberal heavens like SF and NYC but my general experience is that stuff like the above does not happen as much in my blue corners of the world and I am fine with that.Report

  8. Hoosegow Flask says:

    I wonder how much of the issue is related to how large cities and their related suburbs and exurbs spills out across many municipalities, which often have competing interests. The DC metro area, for example, is a mess. Two states and the district, numerous counties and subdivisions within those. A nice community with mostly single family homes inside the beltway may not want anything that would increase density, so development is pushed farther and farther out. I don’t see how it would work in practice, but at times I wish there was some regional governing body looking out for the interest of the entire area instead of just within a narrow political boundary.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Hoosegow Flask says:

      This is a very big part of the problem. Very little polity as complete control over its zoning or land use problems. This gives the people who oppose development a lot of ways to stop it. An inner suburb of single family homes can resist growing denser or allowing for more mixed use development even if it makes no sense to anymore. Suburban counties and municipalities can refuse to be part of regional transit agencies to limit access by people without cars like Cobb County in George or Marin County in California.

      Japan is a very densely populated country but home prices and rents aren’t as high as you would think they would be even in areas like Greater Tokyo or the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolis. One reason for this is that Japan’s zoning and land use laws are handled by the Japanese Parliament at a national level rather than at the prefectural or municipal level. Having Congress handle zoning and land use laws would be madness but municipalities are agencies of the states. State legislatures could simply end a lot of NIMBYism by taking a way zoning and land use laws from the municipalities and passing a state wide zone use law.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Hoosegow Flask says:

      “but at times I wish there was some regional governing body looking out for the interest of the entire area instead of just within a narrow political boundary.”

      Right because there’s no way the people with money and power just take over the regional government.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kolohe says:

        At least the rules would be more uniform over a larger area though.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

          It doesn’t matter. Zoning and school quality is a neighborhood by neighborhood decision, and the power structures are fractal – i.e. “They” will find the right level of authority to exercise their prerogatives and privileges whereever it lies.

          Even HG’s example of DC is telling. While District of Columbia governance is unique, and probably an antiquated relic that needs to go, lack of genuine home rule and/or congressional representation) (at least to degree that’s been in place since the 70s and Walter Washington) has always been a bugbear that’s been more of a scapegoat than an actual problem.

          The District declined in the 70s and 80s, started to come back in the 90s, and has really took off since the 21 century kicked off – just like a whole lot of other cities. In both the periods of decline and renaissance , the political structures around local District governance were exactly the same. (if anything, more hostile in the rebirth period due to Republican control of Congress for the majority of that time).

          So it’s not a structural problem with governance.Report

  9. Brandon Berg says:

    To put this in perspective, here’s a Census report (PDF) on commute times. 2.7% of workers have commute time longer than 90 minutes one way, and another 6% have commute times between 60 and 90 minutes. Mean travel time is 25 minutes each way. Moreover, the longest mean commute in any metropolitan area was 34.6 minutes, in New York.Report

  10. Troublesome Frog says:

    I’ve done a variety of commutes (from 110 miles per day at my previous location a few years ago to zero miles right now working from home) and there are a lot of factors to consider. A few factors that people often forget:

    1) The “work close to where you live” idea is really weak tea. People change jobs relatively frequently (compared to how often they move homes, anyway), and with two income households being the norm, uprooting your spouse to chase a job with a short commute isn’t necessarily a net win. Finding a location where both partners can get jobs with reasonable commutes is a holy grail, not just a thing we should all be doing. If you have it, you won the lottery.

    2) The pricing deltas between housing options aren’t small. My wife and I were considering moving to Folsom to follow her career as an engineer at Intel (in violation of [1]). We ended up down in the South Bay because she was able to transfer and as tech professionals, it gave us a chance to land the holy grail of 2 short commutes. But to pay the same price in Folsom that we paid for our house down here, we’d probably have had to get a house that came with serfs to work the land. To get a house similar to the one we got down here, we’d practically have paid cash (first home) in Folsom. The difference is hundreds of thousands of dollars–one that we could pay but most families can’t. Run the numbers on it, and getting “paid” to commute isn’t a bad deal for a lot of people.

    3) Jobs are more specialized than they were in past generations. Not every city has every type of job. Once you move away from major cities like SF to cities like San Jose or Oakland, that becomes even more true. Commuting out of the city you live in is extremely likely for at least one spouse.

    4) Commuting between two relatively dense adjacent metro areas may not be a 110 mile round trip, but it’s not unlikely to be an hour or more each way. More than distance, time really matters, and when you consider how slow commutes are in dense areas, doubling your commute distance doesn’t double your commute time or cost. When I was doing the 110 mile round trip, my wife was doing 90 miles round trip (leaving in a different direction). We moved to the tech hub and her commute is now 16 miles round trip, but it still takes about 60% of her previous commute time. If it’s about the same amount of time, “living closer” doesn’t really buy you too much.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Troublesome Frog says:

      1. I know plenty of Bay Area couples who do the let’s triangulate for jobs approach to residential living. My girlfriend works in SF and I work in Marin. So SF works for now but I do get cranky because I need to be up at 5:30 to get to the gym for a half hour before work and she doesn’t understand that she gets to sleep in later than I do and still make it to work on time every now and then.

      2. I am glad to hear that the move to Folsom was not because your wife shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

      3. This is an interesting observation and something that I have not thought about before. There are lawyers everywhere but they tend to be solos outside of major cities. Big firms still mainly exist in cities.

      4. True, it takes me just as long to drive up to Marin as it did to commute to downtown SF from my apartment because of traffic, etc.Report

  11. Mo says:

    I would not that we’re taking about a tiny slice of the population (1.4%) that does this. Anecdotally, the guy that I knew that did a crazy commute like this was a recent Chinese immigrant. Americans aren’t unique in their desire for large homes and space, Americans are unique in that we have the space and supporting infrastructure where we can have a lot of space cheaply in exchange for a commute.Report

  12. Kazzy says:

    I generally share similar personal opinions to that of Saul. I did my stint in the true ‘burbs — complete with the big house and even bigger yard — and it wasn’t for me. Thankfully, I’ve course corrected. I now live in Yonkers, a city unto itself and neighbor to NYC, where I work. And yet I still commute 2 hours round trip, on account of needing to travel 11ish miles by subway.

    A perspective that I think Saul lacks here (and understandably so) is that of someone providing for a family. Many folks work long hours and commute great distances from giant homes they rarely see so that their partners and (more often) their children can enjoy the trappings provided by a McMansion on a tree lined cul-de-sac. I personally do not share this view as I’d rather be with my boys in a small place (as I am now in a 2BR apartment) than apart from them in a big home. But not everyone feels that way. And I’d probably have leas empathy for that choice if I wasn’t a parent myself.Report

    • aarondavid in reply to Kazzy says:

      One thing to consider, also, is if one has more than two children, child care costs can eat up a lot of disposable income that comes from having both parents work. I know a few people who choose stay at home parenting, while the partner works and commutes a long distance. In other words, with a high enough pay rate for one partner, they can afford to have one parent stay home with the kids full time.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to aarondavid says:

        Depending on the specifics, this can go either way. If you have a $200K home in the ‘burbs, you can get away with a single earner more easily than the people with the $3000/month rental in the city. However, if your child care costs in the city are $2500/month compared to $1200/month (real numbers, per kid), than that second earner might just say “Fuck it” and stay home if they are only earning $40-50K a year… as one of my friends did.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Kazzy says:

          ” if your child care costs in the city are $2500/month compared to $1200/month (real numbers, per kid), than that second earner might just say “Fuck it” and stay home if they are only earning $40-50K a year… as one of my friends did.”

          And then we get agonized articles in Slate about how men earn more than women and are more likely to be employed outside the home.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to DensityDuck says:

            This assumes that the person staying home is a woman.Report

            • DavidTC in reply to Kazzy says:

              That’s not really the problem with what DD said.

              Here is the universe that we can come up with, based on what you said and what DD claims Slate articles often complain about:

              ‘Women earn less than men, *and thus* when couples can’t afford childcare, it is often intelligently decided that the woman should be the one who quits her job. Thus resulting in men being more likely to be employed outside the home.’

              This actually seems…quite correct to me, and a non-trivial observation. If *I* were making that observation, I would then go on to point out that this fact is then turned around to *justify* paying women less in the first place.

              DD, OTOH, for some reason, seems to complain about people *not liking* this fact. Or at least seems to think Slate should talk about it less.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

      To flesh this out a bit more, commuting can be weird.

      I live in Yonkers… outside NYC… and yet I can get to certain areas of Manhattan much faster and much more conveniently (though at greater expense) than folks in certain parts of the city can. In certain ways, living farther away makes for a shorter commute (by duration) because it avails me Metro North. At the same time, Metro North has a limited run in the city so my particular work neighborhood (W. Village) is still pretty inconvenient. But a colleague of mine who lives way out on LI — much farther from Manhattan or the school than I do — only has an extra 30 minutes of commute time because LIRR connects directly to the west side. And, believe it or not, if I was commuting from where I lived previously — a good 50 miles north — my commute could possibly be just 15 minutes longer because I could take an express NJTransit train straight to Hoboken and then a quick path ride. But all of these commutes would be various degrees of hellish in a car.

      I believe we’ve spoken about this before with regards to the limits of public transportation.

      So, yea, I agree that multiple hour commutes is not something I ever want to be a part of. But I get why some people might take them on and think that commuting is just a really hard nut to crack.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

        Next year, Denver’s light rail system reaches my suburb. From my house, I’ll be a 15-minute bicycle ride and an 18-minute train ride from Union Station. From there, a free shuttle takes me to within a few-minute walk of anywhere in LoDo, or downtown. There are very large parts of Denver proper where the corresponding trip won’t be that quick or that easy.

        The big difference between light rail and the express bus service that provides the corresponding service now is time-of-day availability. Light rail will run every 20 minutes or less from 6:00 AM until 1:00 AM or so. Express bus service headed downtown left three times per day in the morning, headed out to the suburban station three times per day from 5:00 to 6:30. When I was working for the legislature, I had to drive during the session because I was almost always in the office until well after the last bus left; light rail would have worked.Report

  13. Alan Scott says:

    All of the millennial techies I went to school with are just getting apartments right by their jobs, and I think it’ll be a cold day in hell before any of them get big houses that come with absurd commutes.

    The folks I knew with the crazy commutes were the Lobbyists. My Aunt and my Cousin are Education and Health policy wonks respectively, and for a time both of them lived in small-footprint homes in the Bay Area and worked in Sacramento. My Aunt had the money to just buy a Condo in Sac and go home on weekends, but my cousin rode the train every single day. Fortunately, they’ve since moved house closer to job or job closer to house.Report

    • Lyle in reply to Alan Scott says:

      Actually I knew a couple of people in Houston years ago that lived during the week in a small apartment in town and visited the family on weekends in the country house 100 miles away. It seems that besides the work at home idea with reduced telecom costs and the like this idea might also make sense rent a studio apartment for the weekdays and live in the country. (In particular if you can negotiate a 4 day work week).Report

  14. Kazzy says:

    I’m curious about the phrase “love affair” in terms of individual preferences for big houses.

    A little sleuthing tells me that 35% of American households are single-family homes. 42% are in buildings with 5+ units. 18% are in 2-4 unit buildings. And the remaining are in mobile homes or ‘other’.

    So, about 1/3 of all households in America are single family homes. But surely not all of those are big.

    Now this doesn’t necessarily reflect preferences. People in multi-unit dwellings might want single-family homes but, for one reason or another, are not in them. And those in small single-family homes might want bigger ones but, again, are not in them. So these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Also missing is information about folks who own multiple households, though that group may be so small as to not matter.

    But I remain curious about that phrase. It feels judgmental. And, it appears, not entirely accurate.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Kazzy says:

      There is a small group of people very very vocal about ‘wanting space’.

      Part of this being very vocal is, I’m suspecting, is to make absolutely clear that not wanting to live in a city is not due to racism. (Please note I’m not saying that racism is *actually* the reason, just that they are being very vocal so people know it’s not.) And they have to go with ‘wanting space’ because they don’t have kids so can’t say ‘good schools’.

      I wonder how many of these people actually *do* live that way, or if it’s just something they have been taught is what they are supposed to be aiming for. If they see it as the next step up the ladder, and thus they have to aim for it, and, once they get it, can’t move ‘backwards’ to denser housing.

      But, as I said, it’s very easy to mistake small vocal groups of people for actual majorities.

      In the actual reality, instead of politicized nonsense, it appears that most people don’t really have a problem living densely.

      Now, at some point we need to discuss what ‘dense’ *actually means*…it could be possible that people want to live in 1500 square feet worth of rooms, or even 4000 square feet, but don’t give a damn if that’s in a 20th story condo or in a house. Some people tend to think of ‘densely’ as ‘people per square feet’, but I think it might be more logical, for discussion purposes, to think of it as ‘amount of space *between* dwellings’, not the actual internal size of them. (Because what we’re really talking about is walkability.)

      People in multi-unit dwellings might want single-family homes but, for one reason or another, are not in them.

      There are tons and tons of single-family homes sitting vacant right now. There are not tons of multi-unit dwellings sitting with vacancies. (Outside of failed cities.)

      Now, admittedly, some of this is due to pricing, but, at some point, we have to say ‘Hrm. Maybe everyone is just lying to everyone about what they want.’ (Which helps explain why housing policy is always so completely screwed up.)Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to DavidTC says:


        1. Preference for space v. density seems to be roughly 50/50

        2. A good chunk of power over housing and transportation overwhelmingly resides with the suburban and rural crowd. Cities are just starting to catch up and fight after years of no say.

        3. On other blogs I read, commentators have noted that there is a big problem finding three bedroom apartments in many cities. It is pretty easy to find studios to two bedrooms but developers don’t seem to build many three bedroom or four bedroom apartments anymore. Is this because developers are convinced that families want the burbs and/or houses? Do they have market research or just thoughts in their head?

        4. There was an article I read yesterday about how housing is still tight in Manhattan with no end in sight. One developer said that only a recession or depression will change things. The housing market is especially tight for studios and one-bedrooms. Prices on larger apartments have gone down by 25 percent or more but there is still a huge gap between the market price of a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment and a 3 or 4 bedroom apartment in Manhattan.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Do you have data for 1?

          And I’d think the reason you see few 3+ BR apartments is because you really limit your potential for demand. You’re either aiming for larger families or college kids/20-somethings with multiple roommates.

          I agree that there is a general American societal pressure to have a family in the ‘burbs, but I’m not sure that is a love affair. It feels more a burden than a love.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Re: 4

          Yet downtown Yonkers and its new highrises at half the price of equivalent units in Manhattan remain vacant. Preferences are weird.Report