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Kerry Trueman Headshot

Commuting vs. Communing

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The average American commute is growing ever longer, according to a study released last week:

Despite high gas prices - $2.66 in Atlanta on Tuesday - 9 of 10 Americans still drive to work each day, the vast majority of them alone, according to census figures released in June. What's more, the average commute in America has lengthened by a minute a year since 2000, now topping out at 38 minutes, according to the report.

"The big picture is we see congestion increasing in cities of all sizes," says Tim Lomax, an author of the study.

It's not just cars that have wear and tear, experts say. Robert Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that every 10 minutes added to a person's commute decreases by 10 percent the time that person dedicates to their family and community.

Longer commutes eat into mealtime, too; with more of us leaving the house at the crack of dawn and coming home later in the evening, we're too rushed, even, for a bowl of cereal in the morning, much less a home-cooked meal in the evening.

And those obliged to drive to work miss out on the opportunity to incorporate a bit of physical activity into their workday, unlike folks who are lucky enough to live within walking or biking distance of their jobs.

Do we really need to read another study to figure out that all this eating on the run and endless driving is eroding our quality of life? The automobile has not lived up to its promise; it doesn't provide us with true autonomy or mobility. It's enslaved us to fossil fuels from foreign countries while depriving most Americans of any alternative means of transport. And all this commuting is a driving force behind climate change, too.

Mass transit, regarded as a common good that merits serious investment in most developed nations, is considered by many American planners and politicians to be as quaint and outmoded as, say, the Geneva Convention.

Plenty of people still consider proximity to public transportation a selling point, judging by the property values of older suburban enclaves that offer the convenience of commuter trains. But somewhere along the line, we started to put all our eggs in one combustible basket, and now we've hatched a whole flock of problems.

Many people would dearly love to live closer to their jobs, but can't afford the high cost of housing near their workplace. Parents who might prefer to raise their kids in a more densely populated, culturally diverse, mixed-use kind of neighborhood find themselves forced to move to the 'burbs because the public schools are better, the streets are safer, or the property taxes are lower.

But there's a sizable percentage of folks who'd rather live in a bigger house on a larger lot no matter how far from their place of work, for whom the long daily drive seems a reasonable trade-off -- or even a pleasure. Their commute gives them precious "alone" time, or a chance to listen to their favorite author's latest book, or an opportunity to multitask on their cell phones (hands free, we hope.)

So if these so-called extreme commuters are happy with their way of life, why should anyone else frown upon it?

It depends on whether you regard global warming as a problem. If you don't, well, then, there's not much I can say to persuade you that the exurbs are inherently unsustainable. But as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just told a roomful of world leaders at today's Climate Summit, "the time for doubt has passed...inaction now will prove the costliest action of all in the long term."

And another report issued last week, from the Urban Land Institute, points out that choosing to live closer to work is, in fact, a more effective way to fight climate change than switching to a hybrid car.

Unfortunately, our land use policies historically have encouraged exactly the opposite phenomenon, with federal, state and local policies that actively encourage sprawl and make it seem inevitable. And there are plenty of people willing to defend our ever expanding exurbs. As James Burling, the litigation director for the Pacific Legal Fund, a conservative group that dismisses environmentalists' concerns over sprawl and global warming, told The Los Angeles Times:

"So long as people ardently desire to live and raise children in detached homes with a bit of lawn, there is virtually nothing that government bureaucrats can do that will thwart that," he said.

Ah, the proverbial bit of lawn, that precious American birthright. Who cares about greenhouse gases, as long as we can have our own bit of green? When it turns brown from drought, will the suburbs lose their luster, or will extreme commuters even notice, since they leave their homes before dawn and return after dark?

In the meantime, I'm off to hear Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA's Goddard Institute, give a lecture on the impact of climate change on agriculture and food in the Hudson Valley.

Lucky for me, the venue hosting the event is within walking distance, because Manhattan is going to suffer from major gridlock today, thanks to the UN's Climate Summit. Featured speakers include Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Bush couldn't make it, but he condescended to send Condi. Guess he's busy prepping for his own two-day climate summit on Thursday and Friday, which will call for the usual voluntary measures and other pie-in-the-sky solutions. Brace yourselves for more hot air.

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