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« Three Questions | Main | "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" »

April 03, 2004

Timothy Taylor Redux—Not Everything Changes

Michael:

I was intrigued by your posting on Timothy Taylor, especially by the list of how much things had changed for Americans since 1900. I did, however, note that at least one thing had not changed greatly, if at all. According to your post:

Most people lived within a mile of where they worked, and depended on their feet to get them around.

Okay, so most Americans have given up on the getting-around-on-foot thing, but their commute time hasn’t altered that much. By my reckoning, walking a mile would take people from roughly 20 to 30 minutes (at a rate of 3 or 2 mph, i.e., at either a brisk stride or a leisurely stroll.) According to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau study of average travel time to work in 69 cities (which you can see here) in only 3 of those cities does the average worker take more than 30 minutes to get to work, and in only 9 of those cities can he or she make it in less than 20 minutes. In other words, most of us urbanites make it to work in roughly the same time as our grandparents or great grandparents. Granted, given that now we travel there via auto or mass transit at something more like 40 miles per hour, we may be traveling 13 or 20 miles instead of one, but the experience may not be so different.

I wonder how much impact such apparently arbitrary preferences have on how we organize ourselves? If we could travel by flying car or jetpack or bullet train at 100 miles per hour to work would we live 2.5 times as far from work as we do now? Kind of interesting to ponder the enduring power of things like 10-minute coffee breaks, an hour for lunch, the half-hour sitcom, no?

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at April 3, 2004




Comments

I would say that we all waste to much time travelling in our lives.

I just wish someone would hurry up and invent a dam teleport machine!

Posted by: Josh on April 4, 2004 12:45 AM



Interesting point - but "the experience may not be so different" strikes me as wrong.

Walking is a different experience from travelling in a car, or a bus, riding a train, etc.

Urban junkspace is incredibly bleak if you try to walk where you are meant to be driving. In New England, I think cities have been neglected in part because most people drive and don't walk. Official planning talk is divorced from reality in this way. Mayors zip right through. The only people who are walking at all are the poor/carless. (& when college kids or the healthy run around it's a luxury.) (The situation is different in bigger cities, of course.)

Le Corbusier wrote that we work where we shouldn't work & live where we shouldn't live. This in terms of wasteful commute time.

Note, also, that while in motion one's eyes are not as sharp - the faster you are going the less you see. The internet/media always offer us something to mind mindlessly. Read Thoreau on walking. It is one of the great pleasures. People for the most part seem to live in their houses/yards/cars/workplaces & the few usual haunts. Most walking is to & from parking lots? (Much is made of the fact that people used to live in a tiny area their whole life, but today it might be smaller or more superficial. How many places do we have a deep knowledge of?)

What of road rage/traffic/oil. Is there anything healthy about driving in cars? It might have been ol' Christopher Alexander or even Jane Jacobs who wrote if a city isn't walkable it isn't livable.

"If we could travel by flying car or jetpack or bullet train at 100 miles per hour to work would we live 2.5 times as far from work as we do now?" - That is right out of Bucky Fuller. Almost literally.

The toll is terrible. Environmentally & psychologically.

Interesting, though, if people can tolerate about a half hour commute, or whatever the number might be.

Posted by: rex on April 4, 2004 12:32 PM



"Urban junkspace is incredibly bleak if you try to walk where you are meant to be driving. In New England, I think cities have been neglected in part because most people drive and don't walk. Official planning talk is divorced from reality in this way. Mayors zip right through. The only people who are walking at all are the poor/carless. (& when college kids or the healthy run around it's a luxury.) (The situation is different in bigger cities, of course.)"

Yes, the cities were so much more pleasant when most everyone was walking and enjoyed the smell of horse manure wherever they went.

"Note, also, that while in motion one's eyes are not as sharp - the faster you are going the less you see."

No, the faster you are going, the more you see. If you stop, you'll see more detail of a small area. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

"The internet/media always offer us something to mind mindlessly."

Not while you're driving!

"People for the most part seem to live in their houses/yards/cars/workplaces & the few usual haunts."

And the homes of their relatives dozens or even hundreds of miles away. And spots separated by dozens of miles that once took hours to get to and could only be visited a few times a year.

"(Much is made of the fact that people used to live in a tiny area their whole life, but today it might be smaller or more superficial. How many places do we have a deep knowledge of?)"

How many places did our ancestors have any knowledge of?

"What of road rage/traffic/oil. "

You can have traffic jams on foot, especially with everyone needing to live so close together. "Road rage" is nothing special; we've seen it from people on horses and even people on foot. And if we ever run out of oil, we'll get around some other way; I see no reason to do that now just because we might have to later.

Posted by: Ken on April 4, 2004 3:33 PM



"If we could travel by flying car or jetpack or bullet train at 100 miles per hour to work would we live 2.5 times as far from work as we do now?"

Yep. Paul Moller is working on a skycar that can supposedly cruise at about 300-400 miles per hour. You can live in Louisiana and work in Houston or even Austin, which would be too righteously cool for words.

Also, "urban sprawl" would cease to be an important issue. Instead of homes and businesses scattered across dozens of miles, they'd be scattered across hundreds of miles, without need for roads in between. Your house would be surrounded by wilderness, and so would your office, and the shops and other places you frequent.

Posted by: Ken on April 4, 2004 3:37 PM



Hmmm, what if the skycar just bifurcated society yet again? We could have the latte sipping yuppies (having stopped off at the sky-starbucks) zooming along in their branded air cars.

And who would be left on the highways. The underclass, I'm imagining a fleet of mercades driving mack daddies who now OWN the roads. The cars that are left have a Cuban effect to them in that they're all perfectly preserved gas guzzling dinosaurs from the classic models of the 90s and 00s.

The sky-yuppies may have speed, but the soul would be on the streets.

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on April 4, 2004 4:45 PM



I see your point about commute times remaining consistent.

But all I could think of was that even one mile in a raging sideways wind in Chicago when it's two degrees in January would take longer than twenty minutes, and feel like it took a lifetime.

Ditto for walking a mile in Texas in August when it's 115 degrees. There are a few things to be said for climate control.

Posted by: annette on April 4, 2004 4:50 PM



The main reported effect of removing hotspots for traffic jams in the Netherlands, has been that people are moving further away from their work. Right now the distance is 19 kilometres on average or so. Ten years ago it was close to 15.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 4, 2004 4:54 PM



"Hmmm, what if the skycar just bifurcated society yet again? We could have the latte sipping yuppies (having stopped off at the sky-starbucks) zooming along in their branded air cars.

And who would be left on the highways. The underclass, I'm imagining a fleet of mercades driving mack daddies who now OWN the roads. The cars that are left have a Cuban effect to them in that they're all perfectly preserved gas guzzling dinosaurs from the classic models of the 90s and 00s."

Maybe for a while. Until skycars, like groundcars before them, get cheap enough that practically everyone can get one.

Posted by: Ken on April 4, 2004 7:54 PM



'cities were so much more pleasant when most everyone was walking and enjoyed the smell of horse manure wherever they went.'

There was also the annoying crack of whips.

'Also, "urban sprawl" would cease to be an important issue. Instead of homes and businesses scattered across dozens of miles, they'd be scattered across hundreds of miles, without need for roads in between. Your house would be surrounded by wilderness, and so would your office, and the shops and other places you frequent.'

Sounds terrible. Really "cool" though.

There's a techno fix for all, eh?

PLEASE
MORE
TECHNOLOGY

Posted by: rex on April 4, 2004 9:32 PM



I can't believe no one's pointed out that this is clearly part of why we're so fat.

Posted by: linden on April 4, 2004 10:35 PM



Two examples, one current and one fictional. When I was last in London, I learned from a newspaper article that a few people are using the Eurostar to commmute from homes on the French coast to jobs in London. Most did part of their work on the train, as similar commuters do in the US.

And then the fictional one. Science fiction writer Larry Niven has written a number of stories about the effects of teleportation. (And an interesting article exploring variations on it, depending on how it is achieved.) In his stories, people use booths, like phone booths, to move cheaply anywhere, with some distance constraints. One result is that commuters live everywhere.

(For Linden: Actually many people, especially recently, do argue that the decrease in walking is a cause of obesity in this country. One objective in some new town designs is to increase walking. Another way to help that, by the way, would be to allow more mixed zoning so that people could live closer to their jobs.)

Posted by: Jim Miller on April 5, 2004 11:06 AM



But 100 years ago, how many people commuted to work? How many lived on a farm, or in an apartment over the family store, and didn't commute at all?

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 5, 2004 12:05 PM



Walking speeds have been extemely well studied by civil engineers and others. Grandmothers do better than 3 fps, the speed typically used to design pedestrian clearance times at signal-controlled crosswalks. For typical adults, walking speeds tend to be in the 5 to 6 feet per second range, about 3.4 to 4.0 mph. That's a pace that won't have anyone the least bit fit breathing hard. It might have you sweating a bit more than usual if you're in a suit and the temperature is 80+ and the sun is shining. Equivalent energy expenditure on a bicycle will have you traveling about 10 to 12 mph, with some of that variation depending on whether the bike places you upright or in a crouch.

In compact cities that were shaped pre-automobile, such as Boston, a walking pace will get you almost anywhere you want to go expeditiously. When I was in school, I used to walk from the far reaches of Cambridge to Boston's Chinatown and further; I often could have taken the subway, but walking times were more predictable. At rush hour, they were generally quicker than what you could have achieved in a car -- under those conditions, weather permitting, a bicycle or motorcycle was the quickest transport available. I currently live in traffic-saturated Southern California, and, here, a motorcycle can cut many travel times in half during peak periods.

The walking experience is qualitatively different from higher speed transport. Walking, you are immersed in the urban environment, and you have time to take much more of the detail in. While walking, it's possible to browse store windows, to encounter and interact with other walkers, and to to detoured for a few moments by something you find interesting on the way. Even on a bicycle, when compared to walking, the travel experience is much more focused on the destination, the path, and navigating the journey safely.

Ivan Illich argued decades ago that automotive transportation was what he called a "radical monopoly," a system that once started crowded out alternatives. The current buzzword for the same idea is "path dependence" -- but once a city puts in place its transport system, it's hell to change it.

Posted by: rashomon on April 5, 2004 3:41 PM



from what i've read elsewhere, commute time has pretty much stayed consistent throughout the ages. whether it's ancient athens, rome, or medieval london, most people average about 30 minutes commute or under. (though a recent WSJ article details how bikes may remake africa for people walking hours to work each day, though they may be outliers.)

Posted by: dj superflat on April 5, 2004 3:48 PM



I don't know why it is, but elite opinion has always been anti-car. At least that's what they say (whether they believe what they say is another matter).
I love my car. Sure the car has wreaked havoc with 19th and early twentieth century cities, but it's also created a landscape of big low buildings spaced out nicely from each other (what is always disparagingly called sprawl) which has a beauty of its own.
And the sliding gliding view of the world that you get from a car; that's as good in its way as the slower way you see the world when you're walking.
And lots of people enjoy being in their own bubble away from both home and office, on the 20 or 30 minute commute by car.
A big rasberry to the elites!!

Posted by: ricpic on April 5, 2004 6:04 PM



About flying cars: what in the world makes you think it's ever going to happen? Can you say "terrorism"?

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on April 7, 2004 3:21 PM






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