The cost of commuting

There is a clear connection between social deficit and the shape of cities. A Swedish study found that people who endure more than a 45-minute commute were 40% more likely to divorce. People who live in monofunctional, car‑dependent neighbourhoods outside urban centres are much less trusting of other people than people who live in walkable neighbourhoods where housing is mixed with shops, services and places to work.

A couple of University of Zurich economists, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, compared German commuters' estimation of the time it took them to get to work with their answers to the standard wellbeing question, "How satisfied are you with your life, all things considered?"

Their finding was seemingly straightforward: the longer the drive, the less happy people were. Before you dismiss this as numbingly obvious, keep in mind that they were testing not for drive satisfaction, but for life satisfaction. People were choosing commutes that made their entire lives worse. Stutzer and Frey found that a person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40% more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling On Happiness, explained the commuting paradox this way: "Most good and bad things become less good and bad over time as we adapt to them. However, it is much easier to adapt to things that stay constant than to things that change. So we adapt quickly to the joy of a larger house, because the house is exactly the same size every time. But we find it difficult to adapt to commuting by car, because every day is a slightly new form of misery."

Much more here. The irony of my move from Los Angeles to San Francisco has been an enormous lengthening of my commute, it's the longest of my life, and I feel that pain acutely. LA is legendary for its bad traffic, yet the overall lower cost of living in that region makes it far easier to live closer to where you work which is ultimately what matters the most. The quest to get from the West Side to downtown during rush hour in Los Angeles is actually much less painful and long than having to drive up the 101 to San Francisco from the Peninsula during rush hour.

Most days I take the Caltrain, but again, it's the variability of the service that drives me crazy, to Daniel Gilbert's point. At least once or twice a month, something catastrophic causes train service to just dry up for several hours, leaving you stranded. Often it's because of a suicide, at other times it's a car that gets hit, or a power line that falls, or something else you would think would be a rare black swan event. And then your evening is shot, your dinner date left to make alternative plans, unless you pony up for a $90 to $100 taxi or Uber up to the city, but oh wait, the traffic on the 101 means you won't make it on time anyway.

It's difficult to judge what it's like to live in a city just by visiting as a tourist. It wasn't until I'd lived in NYC for a year that I realized it's a far better city to live in than to visit, contrary to popular wisdom. The same is true of Los Angeles, where most natives know when to avoid certain highways at certain times, spending more time in their neighborhood.

For all the good that cities have brought to the U.S., they fail miserably, with the exception of New York, on the quality of public transportation. At least 30% of my pleasure in visiting cities in Europe is being in an environment that makes me, as a pedestrian, first among citizens. American cities were built up in the age of the automobile, and that metallic beast has taken control of our cities in a way that may not be overturned in our lifetime.

It may be that China is where we see some of the greatest innovation on this urban planning dilemma. For one thing, their hand may be forced by the shockingly high levels of pollution in their largest cities. They also face a huge migration of people from rural to urban areas, probably the largest in human history. Combine that with a form of government that has much more freedom to impose its will in matters great and small and you have the potential for a new type of city to be erected, one that is built around direct human mobility rather than transportation by automobile.