Transportation ‘Expert’: Long Commutes Are a Status Symbol

Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski, author of the National Academies’ Commuting In America series, has advised Washington policymakers on infrastructure development for decades. And judging from the presentation I watched him deliver at the Heritage Foundation last week, he’s downright aghast at the prospect that the Obama administration could begin shifting national policy away from total reliance on sprawl and automobiles.

To be fair, Heritage is a conservative bastion that frowns at efforts to regulate climate change and cheers on the expansion of domestic oil drilling. But as Streetsblog readers enjoy a good laugh at George Will’s tirade against transit, it’s worth remembering that Will isn’t alone: Pisarski, respected as an "expert" in the mainstream media, is even more dedicated to keeping America yoked to highway dependence, and he has a litany of influential supporters in his corner.

pisarski.jpgAlan Pisarski (Photo: University of Iowa)

Much of Pisarski’s presentation centered on the contention that long commutes are a luxury item chosen by the wealthy. In a chart titled "Why we are a rich nation," he offered data showing that the number of workers and vehicles in every U.S. household rise along with household income — as does the total transportation spending and commute length in each household.

"Americans are wealthy because they work," Pisarski’s chart stated. "Americans have cars because they work. Americans spend $ on transportation because they work."

Never mind that studies have also tied skin cancer and mercury-poisoning risk to income. Forget the  statistical doctrine that correlation doesn’t prove causation. By Pisarski’s logic, the fact that wealthier Americans have more cars and spend more time driving means that the nation has spoken decisively in favor of low-density suburbanism.

In fact, Pisarski mocked the notion of planning communities that minimized travel time. When it came time for church on Sunday, he quipped, "we could all just change our religions and go to the one that’s closer."

The impact of automobile emissions on the environment — powerfully underscored by President Obama’s deal to raise mileage standards — was wholly ignored in Pisarski’s analysis. At one point, he claimed that national air-quality problems have been "pretty much resolved" (perhaps because he plans to steer residents of pollution-ravaged urban neighborhoods into the suburbs).

Pisarski says he wants to give Americans the freedom to live wherever they choose. Yet he also wants to limit any pesky governmental attempts to offer more choices among modes of transportation, effectively locking the nation into its existing living patterns — however counter-productive they may be.

Another slide in his presentation described two polarized ways of "thinking about the world": one that’s "globally integrated," interested in longer travel times, "market forces" and mobility; and the other that’s neighborhood-based, interested in shorter travel times, "design" of public spaces and accessibility.

I wanted to ask Pisarski about his attempt to divide the country into pro-transit and anti-transit, auto-haters and road-boosters, when the reality is far more complicated and all-of-the-above. Riders of Bus Rapid Transit systems rely on roads and bike commuters often own cars for weekend trips, to name just two examples. But by the time I raised my hand for a question, the time for his presentation had expired.

Something tells me that as the federal transportation debate heats up next month, I’ll run into him again. Any suggested questions? Let me know in the comments section.

  • This guy is an “academic?” Makes me nostalgic for the good science of the Bush years.

  • “we could all just change our religions and go to the one that’s closer.”

    or we could choose to give citizens choices so people aren’t forced to worship at the crumbling alter of automobility.

  • Glenn

    It works both ways. Many of the poorest people cannot afford to live near where they work and some of the richest people choose to live far away even if they can afford to live near where they work. And part of it is cultural. I’m lucky my wife doesn’t buy into the suburban dream world, so we’ll continue to live in the city even if we have kids.

    But her sister who loved living in Boston couldn’t imagine raising kids outside of a suburban house with a big yard and driveway where it’s “safe and has a good school district”. She thinks she’s sacrificing a well rounded urban experience so her kids are safe in their backyard, have clean air and get a good education.

    The sooner we can start tearing down the myth of suburbia and showing that urban life is safe, clean and stimulating environment for children, the sooner we can get people to make more rational decisions about where to live in relation to their jobs.

  • I think he might have a point that rich people commute further. Why get a job further away, if it doesn’t pay better?

    On the other hand, living in dense areas like Manhattan is popular and thus commands a high price. So it cuts both ways. Either way, being exclusively car-dependent is a bad thing. And alotting capacity by the queue system is not the free market way.

  • Thanks for covering this and for uncovering this so well in the process.

    It is almost as if he acknowledges the inefficiencies in the current system but thinks we need to keep them because they make us spend more money and work more to feed the GNP. Obviously this is not sustainable from an American competitiveness standpoint.

    These arguments also run counter to a “Main Street Republican” viewpoint. We work in many red states and rural areas where creating accessibility over mobility is about preserving and bringing back the local values that they hold most closely. Maybe that is more where LaHood is and a viewpoint we can try to uncover and report on.

  • It’s like he stopped paying attention around 30 years ago, when the Republican vision of all cities as ghettoes, all suburbs as middle class, and all exurbs as super-rich actually looked like it was going to hold steady forever.

  • Larry Littlefield

    He is in favor of “freedom,” which means having the federal government use the full weight of its incentives to push people to live his way. Some of us are in favor of responsibility, which means having the federal government use the full weight of its incentives to have people live our way.

    We’ve been losing the battle for 50 years and, frankly, I’d just as soon have the federal government disappear for purposes of transportation.

    I’m tired of being ripped for by entitled people who sneer at me for ripping THEM off. And not just in the federal government, and not just in transportation. Take that mans Social Security and Medicare away. Younger generations owe him nothing.

  • Elana, thanks for posting this.

    It’s obvious to me that sprawl is Heritage’s answer to “How do you keep raising living standards for Americans?” If you define living standards as space to live in, size of yard, number of cars, number of bathrooms, etc. then sprawl is the way to allow more Americans to share in this improvement.

    If you believe that raising living standards would include improving air quality, increasing time spent with family, increasing access to public green spaces, and increasing children’s access to diversions and activities, then sprawl looks like it decreases living standards for Americans.

    But the key point is this: when mileage-based taxation, the credit crunch, or peak oil jointly or severally diminish the ability for Americans to take advantage of sprawl to raise their standard of living, then all those folks stuck living 50+ miles away from their jobs will see their standard of living drop. Heritage’s goal here is probably to forestall this for as long as possible.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And by the way, “free market” folks like him are looking to use the power of government to prevent the market for going in the direction it is going. No surprise — our feudal government is in favor the past, not the future. Developers, meanwhile, are trying to take advantage.

    “Most demographic and market indicators suggest that growth and development across the country are moving away from the suburban and exurban fringe and toward center-cities and close-in suburbs.”

    “What’s behind this shift? Empty-nesters don’t need the big house and don’t want to mow the big lawn. High gas prices are making long commutes less practical. The urban renaissance in big cities ranging from New York to Portland, Ore. — and the revival of charming, vibrant downtowns in small cities like Missoula, Mont. — is making the bedroom suburb and the strip mall seem positively dull.”

    Now consider this: this trend is emerging despite state and local fiscal arrangements that force city dwellers to fund a greater share of the burden of the poor, and past debts and pensions that divert their high tax payments away from services. In reality, virtually all the disadvantages of urban living are governmental. As in the massive retreat from decent public schools in NYC to pay for the massively costly 25/55 pension enhancement for teachers passed just last year (though no one bothers to connect the dots).

    What would the market choice be if tax/public service considerations were neutral?

  • CBrinkman

    “..we need to keep them because they make us spend more money and work more to feed the GNP” – that’s it – it’s very Brave New World where approved sports like Bummble Puppy require lots of time and equipment.

    He forgets that non car-drivers spend our money locally instead of sending it off to insurance companies and car loan companies. We still spend money, just differently.

  • Please fix what appears to be broken link to Pisarski’s presentation in opening graf. Thanks.

  • “Pisarski says he wants to give Americans the freedom to live wherever they choose.”

    In reality, for the past 60 years, most localities have had zoning laws that make it illegal to build anything except low-density sprawl. He should be attacking these suburban zoning laws as a barrier to freedom of choice.

  • Charles: Link is fixed.

  • His own argument flies in the face of the data he’s presenting. In one slide, it shows that flight from cities to suburbs is at its lowest level in 60 years! In another, he notes that people are buying fewer cars. But rather than say that’s the free market doing its thing, he’d rather make the argument that the government is MAKING people do that.

  • Ron Utt

    It is odd that Elena was unable to get her question in during the
    45 minute Q and A, especially as she was sitting next to me — the meeting’s host — and I was handling the questions. Anyway, I’m excited about the exposure and soon we will be posting Alan’s presentation so that her readers can make up their
    own minds.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “In reality, for the past 60 years, most localities have had zoning laws that make it illegal to build anything except low-density sprawl. He should be attacking these suburban zoning laws as a barrier to freedom of choice.”

    What you said. The people with the guts to take that stand — in favor of the free market, equity or anything else — are few and far between. Here is someone who has, and has also had the intellectual integrety to accept the evidence of government power harming rather than helping the worse off.

    The man. Read provocative thoughts 4 and 5.

    Now consider this — many suburbs now have a housing stock that is passing 50 years old, the age at which many neigborhoods in central cities were passed down to the poor, often after being divided into rooming houses by their newly absentee owners. And there is excess supply of excessively large housing in the exurbs, with their new McMansions (not so much in the NY area).

    Many of these homes are being purchased by speculators in foreclosure, those speculators are going to run into big trouble cash flowing them as one-unit rentals, and expectations of price appreciation are not likely to be met in real dollars at least. So what will desperate investors, and former owners who want to move away and cannot sell, do? And who will stop them.

    Massive, massive issue coming, and I’m happy to live in a place where I can sit it out.

  • Shemp

    This guy was bought and paid for by the road lobby a long time ago.

  • Larry: Good point. Christopher Leinberger has been predicting that some of the sprawl will be converted into slum apartments, most notably in

    In the 1970s, large tracts in inner city slums like the South Bronx were abandoned. In the next few decades, some of the sprawl slums could be abandoned and restored as farmland or parks. The abandoned areas would be much larger, because density is so much lower.

    Add in the fact that world population is expected to peak in the 2050s and then to start declining. By the end of this century, large areas of sprawl could be abandoned and revert to open space.

  • Omri

    Suggested question: “if long commutes are a status symbol, why is it that all over the country, proximity to mass transit stations is the factor that most closely correlates to not being caught in the housing downturn? Is this not an easily discernible market signal?”

  • Another suggested question: “if the American Dream centers around the automobile, why is it that in Portland, reduction or removal of automobiles from urban streets increases property values significantly, bicycle parking is heavily requested from residents and business owners alike, and our public transit system is seen as a status symbol?”

    Of course, he’ll probably say we’re all hippies and liberals and don’t represent America (see the McCain campaign tactics for definition of “real” Americans).

  • Chris in Sacramento

    The Pisarski presentation is well worth reviewing, especially for you NYCers, for it effectively lays out the key arguments for an auto-based transportaton system that have so much resonance in most of the country, namely that most Americans associate cars with success and freedom, i.e., freedom to choose where one lives, works, shops, etc. Furthermore, he positions automobility as necessary to support multiple-worker families in an age when jobs are increasingly located not in central cities, but in suburbs. Pisarski makes the case that cars are directly linked to our past, present and future economic and social well-being.

    There are counter-arguments, of course, but Pisarski’s message is one we ignore at our own peril. At a minimum, he helps us better understand the challenges of transitioning to a less auto-dependent world.

  • Why then are bike lanes and light rail considered gentrification? Why are cyclists and light-rail riders most likely to be upper-middle-class to wealthy Men?

    If you have to drive until you qualify that is not a status symbol.

    It’s just a really long drive.

  • Lou

    When urban public schools are desirable again, setting high achievement records like the NYC schools did when my mom was a kid, the appeal/cost of living in cities will soar. Schools are key.

  • I took the time to go through his presentation and was surprised to find out how cogent it was. I think his most important point is that as incomes rise, jobs become more specialized. Those specialized jobs (unlike low-skill jobs like office receptionist or gas-station attendant) are not necessarily located convenient to workers. My example of this is that Columbia’s Earth Observatory is located in Alpine, NJ, by the NY border. If you’re a seismologist, you probably need to work there, not at the main campus on West 116th St.

    When you combine this trend with the growing number of two-job households, and the decline in average tenure at a job, it’s clear that automobility is a necessary component of American prosperity. People are looking for nice homes, nice schools, and nice yards where they can create stable lives, irrespective of where they are working.

    It’s hard for us New Yorkers to see this, because New York is such a centripetal city. I think it’s true of New York and very few other places in the US that workers can build an entire career in a business district as compact as 30th to 60th Streets, 3rd to 8th Avenues.

  • When you combine this trend with the growing number of two-job households, and the decline in average tenure at a job, it’s clear that automobility is a necessary component of American prosperity.

    No, it’s clear that mobility is a necessary component. The basis of that infrastructure is irrelevant to prosperity.

  • what a shock. Someone from the Heritage Foundation advocates complete and utter bullshit. Who knew?

  • I’ve never seen anyone use “transportation spending as a percent of all expenditures.” It is usually looked at as a percentage of income.

  • I bet you’d also find evidence that the higher the household income, the greater the caviar consumption per household. What are the policy implications of this statistic?

  • David

    Pisarski is not an academic, nor is he particularly associated with Heritage. He’s an independent transportation consultant, and has been for several decades.

    His interest is in transportation behavior and spending choices related to transportation. The smug and scornful disdain shown in this comment thread speaks for itself — sadly, it speaks with the same arrogant schoolmarm voice that Pisarski uses to caricature transit advocates.



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