Death by Suburb

The suburbs are literally killing us.

Not only are they killing those of us who live in the suburbs, the suburbs are also killing our planet. Somehow, we have to break our addiction to suburban living.

In the short term, this seems unlikely. As documented in the lead article in this week’s Washington Post Magazine, more and more of us are literally driven to extremes. The article documents a few of the more egregious marathon commuters here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. However, the phenomenon is hardly limited to the area where I live. Los Angeles pioneered it. Two hundred mile daily commutes like Marc Turner’s (as documented in the article) are becoming more and more common. The four hours Turner spends behind the wheel every workday gives him his affordable house in the suburbs for his wife and children. Unfortunately, his affordable house is in Charlottesville, Virginia and his job is in McLean, Virginia. He leaves for work around 7:30 AM and typically does not get home until sometime after 9 PM.

Turner drives 1000 miles a week getting two and from work. Think about this. 1000 miles is roughly the same distance between Washington D.C. and Miami. Imagine driving that distance every week to stay fully employed. But here’s the wackier thing. It would be faster to drive those miles between Washington D.C. and Miami. Even with modest traffic type ups on I-95 you can reasonably expect to average 55 miles an hour, which means you could drive that distance in 18 hours. During a typical week, Turner spends 20 hours a week getting to and from his job. This number will only go up. As traffic volume increases, roads become more congested and accidents increase. This will mean of course a longer commute. Every year a few minutes per day will be added to his commute.

Assuming he gets four weeks of leave a year, he commutes 48,000 miles a year. Turner drives a 1999 Saab 9-3 that according to the EPA averages 20 miles per gallon. Thus, his car consumes around 2400 gallons of gasoline a year commuting. Being kind and estimating only $2.75 a gallon for gasoline, he spends $6600 annually just for gas for his commute. This works out to $550 a month. Of course, there are the other costs of commuting like car payments, depreciation, auto service and other miscellaneous expenses. It is likely that the true cost of his commute is $1000 a month or more.

Those are just his direct costs. What are the costs to the planet? According to the EPA, the average car emits 12,100 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere per year. By my calculation, Mr. Turner’s car emits 53,095 pounds of carbon per year just in commuting, or more than four times the national average.

I suspect his job in Tysons Corner, Virginia pays a lot more than he could make in Charlottesville. Presumably, that helps compensate for the time, distance and expense of his commute. Nevertheless, you have to wonder. He spends at least twenty hours a week commuting. Let us assume he has a high tech job in Tysons Corner that pays $100,000 a year. That is $48.07 an hour. However, if you consider the time commuting as working time then he is working 60-hour weeks and is earning $32.05 an hour. My bet is that he could find a job in Charlottesville that is equivalent, pays at least this much per hour and he would have 20 more hours a week to do something other than commute. His marriage would improve and he would do more than glance at his kids every day. He probably makes the commute in part because he wanted a larger lifestyle than he could afford earning $32.05 an hour in Charlottesville.

Turner’s case is perhaps one of the more egregious ones. Yet as the Post Magazine article points out, he has plenty of company. Rush hour traffic is starting well before 6 AM on roads in West Virginia heading for Washington D.C. All that time sitting in a car though by yourself though is unhealthy. First, humans are social creatures. Not many of us would choose to spend four hours in a locked room by ourselves every day. Doctors worry about people developing blood clots from long airplane rides. What do you do to your health sitting in a car seat four hours a day? As the article documents, commuters have three times the likelihood of getting a heart attack in a car as opposed to not being in a car. I am also betting that with his marathon commuting lifestyle, Turner is not getting anything resembling regular exercise.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Most likely, we are chasing the lifestyle our parents knew. Our desire to have a similar lifestyle is understandable. We are comfortable having this kind of lifestyle and it would be disconcerting and embarrassing if we cannot have it. There are many reasons why this kind of lifestyle is increasingly challenging. The principle one is that there are many more human beings than their used to be. There is also a big disparity between where the good jobs are and where affordable housing exists.

The suburban lifestyle is also bad for our health. You cannot live in a suburb without a car. Instead of walking somewhere, you are likely to drive there instead. Of course, with all that commuting getting any exercise if problematical. And speaking of commuting, if your suburb is like mine then it is probably missing a bus service. We actually do have a bus but it operates during rush hours only. Most of the time it runs empty. We cannot be bothered to take it because it is not convenient. It does not run frequently enough and it does not necessarily take us where we need to go anyhow.

Of course, most of us who do have access to a bus in the suburbs are already living out here. We bought in when prices were affordable. I could no longer afford to buy a house in my own neighborhood. My house, bought for $191,000 in 1993 is now worth close to half a million dollars. Unless a new couple comes complete with some very generous parents or have excellent jobs, the $3000-$4000 monthly mortgage payments are probably out of their price range. Therefore, they are buying further out instead.

There are alternatives, but they require reorienting your perspective and values. One alternative is to move far away from major metropolitan areas and live a smaller, more downsized life doing work that probably is less challenging and does not pay as well. Another alternative is to surrender those dreams of a house in the suburbs and a good neighborhood school for your kids. You have to imagine a lifestyle like in that 60s TV show, A Family Affair, where you and the kids live in an apartment or condominium somewhere in or very near the city. Unless the walls between units and floors are very thick, expect to have your neighbors in your face a lot more. You will still pay a lot for that apartment or condominium and it will have half the space or less of that house in the suburbs. However, at least you will be close to where you work. You will probably not have to spend twenty hours a week like Marc Turner commuting to and from your job.

These are essentially your choices for living in America in the 21st century. If you are emulating the Marc Turner lifestyle, expect that every year your lifestyle will become more difficult and more aggravating. At some point, it will become unendurable. There are West Virginians who rise at 3:30 AM in order to get to work in the city. The human body cannot endure such crazy hours and sleep depravation forever. If you lust after the suburban experience, you should face reality and downsize your expectations.

Our planet will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

2 thoughts on “Death by Suburb

  1. Another excellent article. I’m at TechEd 2007 in orlando. I needed a break from all the technogeek conversations and this article did the trick. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for this entry. I think you may have caused me to have an epiphany.

    I have been so frustrated that I cannot seem to replicate the life my parents led. They had a house in the suburbs on one income. My mom stayed home with us kids.

    Here I am, 28 years old, with a higher degree than my father and a very respectable job. Yet, I have no children, I live in an apartment, and I’m just making ends meet on two incomes. I have two years to get to where my mother was when she started our family. There’s no way I’m going to make it. It is becoming apparent to me that I may never have that life. It makes me feel like a failure. It makes me want to throw my hands up in despair.

    Until I read what you wrote, and realized maybe the problem isn’t me. Maybe the problem is my expectations being out of date with the modern world. Maybe I should feel proud that I haven’t decided to run my body and the environment into the ground trying to chase that rainbow.

    Just maybe :).

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