Americans, Big Homes, Long Commutes, Health and Hazards
Inside Bay Area has a report on mega-commutes that many people in the region are starting to undertake.
In 2013, there were over 100,000 people who commuted more than 90 minutes (one-way) to work in the Bay Area. This number has almost certainly grown since then. The reporters found a wide variety of commutes that seem extremely long and potentially impossible, “They described a wide assortment of grueling drives, including from Manteca to Mountain View (140 miles round trip); Los Banos to San Francisco (240 miles); American Canyon to Santa Clara (150 miles); Discovery Bay to South San Jose (130 miles); Patterson to Palo Alto (170 miles); Tracy to Walnut Creek (90 miles); Modesto to Campbell (170 miles); Hollister to Mountain View (120 miles); Newman to downtown San Jose (190 miles).”
The interviewees all expressed stress and physical and mental exhaustion from their long commutes. The report mentions that this problem has been caused by several decades of housing policy choices and non-choices. Though I am starting to wonder if good housing policy is seemingly impossible as a task.
Though there are somethings in the report that make me wonder that even building all the dense housing to fulfill the dreams of neo-liberals and urbanphiles everywhere might not end mega-commuting. One subject with a 130 mile commute (which probably means 4-5 hours in a car every day) opined:
“If we were living closer to my job, we’d probably be looking at a little 1,000 square-foot townhome and squeezing into three bedrooms,” Levers said. Instead, he and Danielle are considering a move from their four-bedroom house — purchased in 2010, in the downdraft of the 2008 crash, for $325,000 — to a nearby $600,000 place with four or five bedrooms, larger yard and a pool. Bigger is better than closer, in their case.
Another engineer commutes from far East Bay to San Jose and also has a 130 mile daily commute made a similar observation for his 3700 square feet home “Do I miss the closeness of my friends, the rock climbing gym I am a member of, and the quick access to in-town activities” near the office, he asked? “Yes, yes, yes. Do I hate the drive and the frustration of traffic jams that make it worse? Absolutely. Do I regret my decision? No.”
Some observations and thoughts:
1. I think these commutes are insane. They are fairly common though and I have been hearing about them in one way or another since the late 1990s or early Aughts. When I lived in New York, there were stories about people purchasing homes in Pennsylvania or upstate New York and commuting to NYC for work everyday. There also seems to be something paradoxical about giving yourself a 100 mile plus commute in order to afford a home because it means spending less time in your home during waking hours.
2. How many people would not be able to afford their exurban homes if they decided to get jobs closer to home? Cities and tech corridors seem to offer strong wage premiums. The houses people were purchasing in the article ranged from 189,000-500,000 dollars. Would these houses be affordable if the participants decided to get jobs in their residential counties. I suspect the answer might be no for many or most. Or their residential counties might just not have that many jobs. San Joaquin and Stanislaus County both have low per capita incomes and higher than average unemployment rates at 8.8 percent and 9.8 percent respectively.
3. Wasn’t the internet and e-commuting supposed to help prevent mega-commutes?
4. I am largely with urban advocates who think that Americans need to live more densely and this will have positive changes on the environment and our mental and physical health. The problem is that the urban advocates are up against the facts that the United States has a lot of space. They are also up against the fact that Americans have a love affair with home ownership over rental and owning big houses instead of townhomes or condos in particular. All of the commuters in the article expressed mental and physical exhaustion from their commutes. Yet they seem to think it is worth it for a four bedroom house with a pool. This lives articles like this as seeming like clueless and empty cheerleading. The article fails to mention that banning cars in neighborhoods is much easier when you live in a country where 50 million people in an country that is slightly under 39,000 square miles.
The mega commute thing seems like something that can’t continue forever but it also seems like we are going to be hearing more mega-commute stories in the foreseebale future. Dense housing advocates don’t seem to have a plan for convincing Americans to want smaller and more denser homes. All the participants in the Bay Area report said that they missed walkability and urban attractions but it was worth forgoing those for a big house with a pool. They don’t even seem to talk about this as an issue. The urban advocates just seem to think that it will happen and people will think it is great and wonder what they were missing for decades and the world will become like a Jane Jacobs paragraph. Maybe urban advocates need to think more about the American love affair with big houses and why it exists.