Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More pro-sprawl myths rebutted

I.  Does sprawl reduce commute times?

I've seen the argument made that sprawl doesn't increase commuting times because jobs follow people to suburbs, and so suburbanites have shorter commute times than they would if their jobs were in the city.

But this article in today's Washington Post suggests otherwise.  In metro DC, residents of DC and Arlington had the shortest commutes (29 and 26 minutes respectively).  By contrast, residents of exurban Prince William County had the longest (41 minutes).   Other suburbs had in-between commuting times.

What's going on?

First, Prince William is not one of the more job-rich suburbs.  To the extent "job sprawl" benefits commuters, it benefits only the ones who live in the job-rich suburbs (in DC, Loudoun and Fairfax Counties more than Prince William).  If you live in a less job-rich suburb, your commute might be longer than if you worked downtown.

Second, even if moving to a job-rich suburb to follow your job reduces your commute, other people in your household may still have a downtown job- which means the increase in that person's commute cancels out the decrease in yours. 

For example, suppose my wife and I live downtown; my job is 8 miles out in suburbia and hers is a few yards away, so we have a total commute of 8 miles.

A year later, we move to suburbia, 2 miles from my job and 10 miles from my wife's downtown job.  I am better off, but our total commute is 12 miles- far worse than when we lived downtown.

II.  Is sprawl somehow necessity for higher birthrates?

Joel Kotkin wrote in a recent article for Newsweek,   "Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there's literally no room left for kids."

There might be densities where there is "no room left for kids." But not in America.  A recent New York Times article  notes that Kiryas Joel, NY (a Hasidic enclave) has 18,000 people in 3000 families on 1.1 square miles.  When you do the math, you find that this community has around 16,000 people per square mile (more than any American city but NYC) and 6 people per family, a lot more than most American households.   

(This commentary is more or less cross-posted from my blog (although in slightly different form).

PS My review of Bruegmann's book (now under submission to law reviews) will soon be available at Bepress.

Michael Lewyn

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I think you may be interested in Robert Frank's engaging work on housing as a positional good. He attributes much of the desire for bigger houses to mere "keeping up with the Jones's" type competition. (See, e.g., Choosing the Right Pond; or many later essays). He also documents the incredible toll longer commutes take (in terms of health, stress, and environmental degradation).

As for "no room for kids": i was usually happier as a kid in apartment complex, where there were more people around to play. In the suburbs of Oklahoma (the one place my parents had a house), the kids were so spread out they were hard to get together! Jane Jacobs returns, I guess.

Posted by: Frank | Aug 30, 2006 5:36:44 PM

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