At this point, most everyone agrees that Americans are way too dependent on oil in our daily lives. Set aside pollution issues, even. There’s still the raw fact that the economy is hideously vulnerable to wild swings in the price of crude. Another well-timed spike could hurtle us back into recession. All sorts of solutions have been proposed, from drilling the Arctic (not likely to help much) to alternatives like electric cars (which could take years). Then there are urbanist types who point out that if people simply had more alternatives to driving — from mass transit to biking — then oil spikes wouldn’t hurt as much. Even though a significant subset of people would still have to drive, more options for more people would, at the margins, make our economy more resilient in the face of, say, civil war in Libya.
The trouble with this urbanist approach is that it has a P.R. problem. Americans are pretty culturally attached to the suburbs, and it’s not terribly popular to suggest that more people should learn to love denser living and the joys of cramped city life. So here’s another way to think about the problem. Earlier today, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) released a new report, “Freedom from Oil: How Transportation Choices Can Provide Gas Price Relief” that subtly raised an interesting point: Right now, people don’t really have enough information to make reasoned transportation decisions. And simply providing that information could have a big impact.
Here’s what I mean. Last week, Annie Lowrey wrote a wonderful piece for Slate about all the myriad ways that long commutes make us miserable. People absolutely loathe sitting in traffic, and long commutes increase the risk of obesity, divorce, stress, sleeplessness, neck pain. So why do we keep opting for long commutes? Here’s Lowrey:
The answer mostly lies in a phrase forced on us by real-estate agents: “Drive until you qualify.” Many of us work in towns or cities where houses are expensive. The further we move from work, the more house we can afford. Given the choice between a cramped two-bedroom apartment 10 minutes from work and a spacious four-bedroom house 45 minutes from it, we often elect the latter.
For decades, economists have been warning us that when we buy at a distance, we do not tend to take the cost of our own time into account. All the way back in 1965, for instance, the economist John Kain wrote, it is “crucial that, in making longer journeys to work, households incur larger costs in both time and money. Since time is a scarce commodity, workers should demand some compensation for the time they spend in commuting.” But we tend not to, only taking the tradeoff between housing costs and transportation costs into question.
Tom Vanderbilt had a vivid way of describing this situation in his book “Traffic.” Most people would rather shell out for a house with, say, an extra guest bedroom, even if it meant tacking an extra 10 minutes of commuting each day. It’s easy to visualize the one or two days a year (if that) when Grandma comes to visit and the guest bedroom gets used; it’s harder to visualize the slow, steady drip of misery that that extra 10-minute commute brings. In the long run, making this choice might be irrational, but it’s how our brains seem to work.
There’s no way to prevent this sort of thinking entirely, but there are ways to mitigate it. And that’s where Blumenaeur’s report comes in. It notes, rightly, that people often don’t fully take into account transportation costs when buying homes — partly because it’s difficult to make those calculations upfront. But what if, say, the government created a Transportation and Housing Affordability index that disclosed the transportation costs associated with a particular location? Likewise, what if mortgage lenders gave credits on home loans for households that had lower transportation costs? After all, owning a car is expensive, and in some areas, forgoing a car can save up to $9,000 per year. In theory, lenders should reward that sort of behavior, but they often don’t. If this were all more transparent, a lot of people might prefer, of their own accord, to pay more for homes that were transit-accessible or had shorter commutes. A little more information can go a long way.
Granted, that’s not the whole story. Right now, transit-accessible homes are already in high demand — that’s why they’re so pricey. As Chris Leinberger of Brookings once told me, some 30 to 50 percent of residents in U.S. metropolitan areas want to live in walkable urban environments — a trend fueled by the growing numbers of single and childless couples, who will constitute 88 percent of household growth through 2040. But there are only enough truly walkable neighborhoods in the country to satisfy about 5 to 10 percent of metro residents. Even if more and more people wanted to ditch their cars and interminable commutes, there’s still a supply problem.
And that’s where the rest of Blumenauer’s report, which is really worth reading, comes in. There are a whole slew of minor but worthwhile ideas in there, from rejiggering federal transportation funding formulas so that they take gasoline use into account when approving new projects, to encouraging local communities to rethink their oversupply of free parking. Of course, that’s all harder, more contentious stuff. Simply providing better information to renters and home buyers — so we can think a little bit more rationally about commuting — should be a relatively noncontroversial start.
Brad Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic.