Skip to main content

Houston, Sprawl, and Travel Distances

Ed Glaeser appeared on Morning Edition last week and praised Houston for "providing middle-income Americans with a really astonishingly high quality of life." Have a listen:

One thing that strikes me is Glaeser's comment that Houston is a success in the sense that you can live really far away from stuff (distance-wise) but not actually be too far away from stuff (time-wise).

Think about this: the average commute time in Harris County, Texas is 28.2 minutes, according to just-released 2008 American Community Survey data. The average commute time in New York County (Manhattan) by comparison, is 30.4 minutes. The total commute times are very similar (with Houston having a slight advantage) but the means of commuting are radically different. In Harris County, 77.3% drive in a car - alone. In Manhattan, 84.3% commute by walking, biking, riding public transportation or taking a taxi.

So are commutes in Houston just slightly less miserable than those in Manhattan? The answer is: it depends. Alex Marshall has an awesome article in Governing Magazine on this question.
Years ago, I drove 35 minutes each day from Virginia Beach to Norfolk to a job as a schoolteacher. Because I lived blocks from a freeway and the school was blocks from an off ramp, I was able to drive at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute—but a tiring one. When you drive at high speed on a freeway, you need to pay attention or you may kill someone, yourself included.

Now I live in Brooklyn, and I commute 45 minutes to my office in Manhattan. This involves a 15-minute walk to the subway, a five-minute wait for the train, and a 20-minute subway ride, plus a five-minute walk to work. This is longer than my old 35-minute commute by car but it’s less tiring. I enjoy the morning (and evening) walk. I can read or watch TV (my newest bad habit) on my iPhone while on the subway—or talk to strangers, which is something I enjoy.

I make this comparison to point out that, when it comes to transportation, time is an elastic, subjective, almost mystical thing. One minute spent traveling one way is not the same as another. Yet we seldom acknowledge this. This squishy side of transportation has little place in serious policy discussions at city council tables and in legislative chambers. It isn’t easy to start talking about how transportation feels.
And this is basically exactly what Glaeser is doing in his analysis. He assumes that a minute spent commuting in Houston is the same as anywhere else. He blasts places like New York and Boston for having unfairly high costs of living and praises Houston for not. He argues that the difference in living costs in different metro areas is the result of government regulation, or the inability of the free market to set prices, rather than the desirability of those places themselves within the market.

But if we toss out that assumption for a moment, then we can ask whether Houston commuters are paying a higher price in the way that they commute that Manhattanites do not. And we can ask whether living close to something distance-wise is actually more valuable than living close to that same thing time-wise. I think anecdotally most residents of Houston would laugh at the suggestion that light traffic and short commutes are a major selling point of their city; and while most New Yorkers could rag on the NYC Subway all day, like somebody picking on their sister, they will defend it to the death.


Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Commuting Meets Technology

I'm finally out of the dark ages. I got an Android smartphone over the weekend and have since been in the process of exploring the Android apps market.  One thing I've immediately noticed is the really wide range of usefulness in the apps. For example, the WeatherBug app is fantastic. It automatically determines your location and gives you exact conditions for that location. On the other end of the spectrum, Google's Goggles app is supposed to be a type of 'visual search' where you snap of photo of something and Google searches for it. In each of my attempts to use it, the app hasn't returned any search results. I even took a photo of a bottle of Pepsi (figuring it as a common houseful item) and got nothing.

Somewhere in the middle is this app called Waze. Have a look at their 'guided tour':

Some people might look at it and comment on the amazing evolution of technology or on the incredible value of social networks. To me, Waze says something important ab…