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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.


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