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Why Will We Wait? Our Seemingly Infinite Patience With Long Commutes
Traffic under Torontos Victoria Day Fireworks. Photo by Lone Primate.

Traffic under Torontos Victoria Day Fireworks. Photo by Lone Primate.

I hope everyone had a wonderful 4th of July and long weekend. I know I did.

There are a bunch of people, though, who I can’t imagine enjoyed their holiday. Take a look at the Post’s Get There blog’s coverage of traffic after the event. There were five mile back-ups on I-395 and quarter-mile lines at Federal Triangle and Smithsonian. What’s more, this amount of congestion was not only expected, it was less than last year. People were ready and willing to put up with these kinds of waits.

This kind of knowing plunge into gridlock isn’t limited to the 4th of July and Presidential inaugurations, however. The average commute in Virginia is 26.8 minutes; the average commute in Maryland is 31.1 minutes. At the county level, Prince William County has an average commute of 35.5 minutes, Prince George’s County has an average commute of 34.6 minutes, Montgomery County has an average commute of 30.9 minutes and Fairfax County has a 28.6 minute average commute. This puts these counties at 5th, 6th, 16th and 38th worst travel times to work, respectively.

Now a half-hour commute isn’t the worst. But for every person who works in Silver Spring and therefore has a ten minute commute, there’s someone in Montgomery County who takes 50 minutes to get to work every morning. There’s also the person commuting two hours every day. At the point where a full-time worker is traveling 30 minutes each way to work, she is essentially taking an 11% pay cut; she is spending 9 hours of each day working and getting paid for 8. At a 50-minute commute, that’s a 21% pay cut.

On transit, at least you can read the newspaper or a book or even get some work done, if you’re in an industry where reading, writing or Blackberrying is part of your job. Even so, there is plenty of research that shows that people consistently underestimate the costs of commuting as compared to the benefits of living further away. The Urban Land Institute, for example, found that anyone living more than 15 miles away from their work spends more in transportation costs than they save in housing costs.

The point of all this is to highlight the importance of policy and cultural shifts to change our development patterns; relying on consumer demand isn’t going to cut it. There’s a market failure due to behavioral issues if people underestimate the cost of commuting. If people see no cost to commuting—not even the opportunity cost of an hour or two out of their day—this just isn’t an arena where market mechanisms will get you all the way there. Moreover, even if commuters are correctly pricing commuting, if their willingness to commute greater and greater distances is essentially inelastic, there is no consumer-driven boundary to sprawl, an outcome which environmentalists and urbanists cannot abide. That creates a trickier political question, in terms of telling people that their preferences are wrong, but it might be necessary nonetheless. If there are people thrilled to sit in 5-mile gridlock to see better fireworks, distance and traffic might be very weak weapons indeed in fighting sprawl.