One of the best things we could do as a country is reduce the time we spend commuting. Of course this would require people to adjust their priorities, but in the end it would result in more free time, better environmental conditions, and a general increase in the standard of living.
People commute for a lot reasons but one of the most common seems to be home prices. While the American dream apparently includes homeownership, most people tend to find cheaper homes farther from their places of work. Right now, for example, I live in Utah and it’s much cheaper to buy a house in West Jordan than it is in downtown Salt Lake City or even Sugar House. Both Laura and I grew up in Southern California and the situation is even more extreme there. Either you live in a “rougher” neighborhood in the city, or you live in a suburb and drive into town. (L.A.’s notorious traffic leads me to believe that everyone in Southern California lives quite a distance from their places of work).
Another big reason people commute is schools. When my family moved to Utah, for example, they chose to live farther from my Dad’s work so that the kids could attend the better school. I can’t argue with the numbers that say which school districts are better, but I do question just what “better” means. Obviously if you’re choosing between Glendora (where I grew up) and Compton,“better” probably means fewer gangs and drug problems. On the other hand, if you’re choosing between Provo and Alpine, “better” apparently means a more homogenous student body. In any case, many people aren’t choosing between a great school district and a terrible one. Instead they’re choosing between an okay district and a slightly better one.
There are a lot of other reasons that people commute, but in the end I haven’t found any that are particularly compelling. If you’re buying a house, a smaller, more centrally located home could be just as satisfactory. For that matter an apartment could also probably work. The point is that we could shift our values so that they no longer include big houses (that sit empty while we drive around all day). The same goes for schools; we could choose to attend schools with slightly lower rankings and accept the fact that the degree to which a child succeeds at school mostly hinges on the home environment. Better yet, we could try to improve the communities and schools closest to where we spend most of our time.
Ultimately, whether people choose to shorten or eliminate their commutes for altruistic reasons or not this problem needs to be addressed. I suspect that people would be generally happier if they weren’t in their cars so much. Even if that’s difficult to prove, the environmental impact of commuting is not. Just because a person rakes in a decent salary doesn’t mean that they should have the right to pollute at will. (I don’t care what kind of car you drive it still pollutes more than walking or biking.) Instead, I suggest we invest in our happiness, our future, and the future of our planet and start living closer to where we work.