The Assumption of Inconvenience

98195646_33aa7b2071.jpgThe secret of European eco-friendliness? Maybe not. Photo: romerican/Flickr

Early this week, I noticed a number of my favorite bloggers linking to this Elisabeth Rosenthal essay at Environment 360, on the mysterious greenness of European nations. The average American, as it happens, produces about twice as much carbon dioxide each year as your typical resident of Western Europe.

Rosenthal attributes much of this difference to behavioral factors relating, it seems, to Europeans’ unique tolerance of inconvenience. She writes:

But even as an American, if you go live in a nice apartment in Rome, as
I did a few years back, your carbon footprint effortlessly plummets.
It’s not that the Italians care more about the environment; I’d say
they don’t. But the normal Italian poshy apartment in Rome doesn’t have a clothes dryer
or an air conditioner or microwave or limitless hot water. The heat
doesn’t turn on each fall until you’ve spent a couple of chilly weeks
living in sweaters. The fridge is tiny. The average car is small. The
Fiat 500 gets twice as much gas mileage as any hybrid SUV. And it’s not
considered suffering. It’s living the dolce vita.

She later adds:

Also, in Europe, the construction of most cities preceded the invention
of cars. The centuries-old streets in London or Barcelona or Rome
simply can’t accommodate much traffic — it’s really a pain, but you
learn to live with it. In contrast, most American cities, think Atlanta
and Dallas, were designed for people with wheels.

What makes this particularly remarkable is that she opens the essay by discussing an experience she has in Stockholm, in which she insists on taking a taxi from the airport, which ends up being much slower and more expensive than the train.

Brad Plumer frames the piece as a fascinating read in light of the "lifestyle taboo," writing:

It’s not considered the height of political savvy here in the United
States to point out that European lifestyles are greener than our own.
Don’t expect that line in an Obama speech anytime soon. Too many facets
of European life—the cramped apartments, the clotheslines for drying
laundry—would likely strike suburbanites as inconvenient, burdensome,
or even downright primitive…

Rosenthal wonders whether similar measures could fly in the United
States: "I believe most people are pretty adaptable and that some of
the necessary shifts in lifestyle are about changing habits, not giving
up comfort or convenience." Maybe so, but this sort of talk still tends
to be taboo in mainstream U.S. green circles. Josh Patashnik wrote a terrific piece for TNR

last year on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s brand of "pain-free
environmentalism" in California—it’s all just peachy to talk about
swapping out coal-fired plants for solar-thermal stations, but ixnay on
trying to rein in suburban growth or coax people into smaller homes.

I see several problems with Rosenthal’s essay and with Brad’s framing of it. One is that it’s not really correct to attribute the huge gap in per capita emissions between America and Western Europe to the charming European habit of drying their clothes on clotheslines.

As Brad notes, power sources play a major role, whether one is talking about greater use of natural gas, the French nuclear industry, or Iceland’s geothermal capacity.

Climate is extremely important. Western Europe is fairly temperate relative to much of America (and especially compared to the dirtiest parts of the country). In the same way, Californians are much greener than Texans, thanks to the moderate conditions along the heavily populated Pacific coast, which reduce the number of days on which home heating or cooling is needed.

But there are lifestyle issues involved, particularly where transportation and land use are concerned. And contrary to Rosenthal, it isn’t that Europeans have opted for inconvenience. Rather, they have chosen different conveniences, as her Stockholm air train anecdote makes clear.

It is incorrect to say that an overabundance of land drove America to sprawl, and to drive. The Netherlands is dense of necessity, of course, but in Britain and France and Germany there is ample countryside, which might easily be home to sprawling subdivisions.

But Western Europeans have largely chosen not to encourage such growth, opting instead to tax gas at high rates, invest in transit, and protect center cities from the threat of urban freeways.

I think it is very difficult, objectively, to demonstrate that their choices have produced ways of life that are clearly less convenient than American lives. It is clear that Europeans tend to have better health outcomes than us, and they die in car accidents at much lower rates, and of course they’re enjoying levels of wealth similar to our own while producing half as much carbon.

The obvious retort to this line of thinking is that perhaps that’s all true, but like it or not America is now sprawling, and any effort to make the country greener by pursuing European land use and transportation options would be very difficult. In a similar vein, it is argued that attempts to push Americans into such a life via gas taxes or carbon prices would wind up being very painful.

But this is not quite right. As I have pointed out before, America will more or less need to build itself all over again by 2050 in order to accommodate population growth. Just because most of America is currently sprawling doesn’t mean that most of the America built between now and mid-century has to look the same.

It’s also not clear that increasing the push factor on households has to be especially painful. Taxes on drivers can be levied in a progressive fashion, if some revenues are used to fund transit options while others are refunded to lower and middle income households to help offset the added cost of driving.

Congestion tolling would mean higher government revenues and reduced driving, but it would benefit rich and poor alike. As with tax revenues, tolls could be used to provide a cushion against the increased cost for lower income families and increased investment in transit. Higher income households (which will tend to place a greater value on work hours lost to congestion) would enjoy a speedy ride into the office.

If the federal government worked to address limits on urban growth in green cities like New York and San Francisco — limits which also serve to make housing in such places extremely expensive — then America could grow denser and greener by improving access for middle-income households to some of the most dynamic metropolitan economies in the country.

Perhaps not all of the policy changes needed to reduce America’s carbon footprint will be a walk in the park, but efforts to improve land use and transportation decisions are likely to be some of the most benefit-rich aspects of the climate change fight (as you’d think most people would realize, given the obvious pain of congestion, high gas prices, driving fatalities, and isolation among those unable to drive, among other things).

This storyline — that changing lifestyles to enhance walkability will be painful — makes it harder to pass good metropolitan policies and easier for politicans to fall back on the lame argument that Americans simply won’t tolerate anything other than the sprawling suburban patterns which have dominated new development in recent decades.

And by reinforcing the idea that some of the most promising and least painful policy changes that can be made are unlikely to "work" here in America, writers and politicians alike ensure that more of the hard job of cutting emissions will fall to the parts of the economy where there are no good alternative options, and where change will be painful for households.

Rosenthal’s essay is odd yet revealing. She instinctually attributes European greenness to practices Americans would dub backward, while pretending that the very convenient and green transport options she finds are built, and presumably used, by Europeans based on some peculiarity in their culture that we lack.

But we could build trains! In any given legislative sessions bills are introduced that would move the country toward the level of convenience Rosenthal enjoyed in her train ride to the Stockholm airport. It’s just that they don’t pass, because "it’s not considered the height of political savvy" to embrace those policies, because Americans seem to think that their American-ness will render such conveniences inconvenient.

"Trains won’t work here," because "Americans love their cars," and so high quality rail lines aren’t built, and so Americans continue to drive. And then we sit around wondering what it is about the European character that makes them enjoy using clotheslines so much.

  • A lot of energy-oblivious American habits are actually recent. I walked to school as a kid; today only small minority of kids do. Very few of my high school classmates owned cars. Kids biked and walked everywhere in my hometown. Though this is more tangential: My mom had a clothlines in the backyard. Today they’re actually illegal in many places. I think it’s a telling example because the mindset prizes appearances over functionality. As the peak oil scenario moves forward, I think commonsensical functionality is going to make a big comeback.

  • JSD


    Your proposals and responses to the article are perfectly reasonable. That is precisely why they have absolutely zero chance of becoming reality in the short to middle term. I see the political and social environment as so poisoned at the moment that anything different or new is automatically framed as inherently bad. And people eat it up.

    Your congestion pricing proposal is especially interesting. It makes sense, and in a measured and reasonable atmosphere would be embraced by a significant majority of Americans (or, in a recent instance, New Yorkers). But today, people are anything but reasonable. Following the congestion pricing proposal here in New York, we saw the Post and the Daily News latch on to congestion pricing as an assault on the middle class, and an affront to the only people that matter in this city. It became about populism, and it failed.

    These things will eventually happen here in the states. I have no doubt about it. But I am beginning to believe they will be in response to a crisis, not out of any particular foresight.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The future direction of U.S. urban development and transportation, with the associated environmental impacts, will be determined by the choices of those now age 30 or younger.

    Those older have chosen, and more need not be built to accomodate their preferences. (During the housing bubble lots of people did decide to buy two or more McMansions, but that turned out badly).

  • A point that is rarely mentioned: Europeans work less than Americans and therefore produce and consume less than Americans. Eg, output per worker hour in the Netherlands is about the same as in the United States, but the average Dutch worker works only about 75% as many hours per year as the average American worker.

    If Americans worked as many hours as West Europeans, it would reduce our CO2 emissions by 20%.

  • As Larry said, it’s all about the under-30 generation. If the over-30 generation is successful in convincing their juniors to establish homes and families in smaller dwellings, closer together, without an automobile, and further from the workplace, then Ryan’s “efforts to improve land use and transportation decisions” will bear some fruit.

    The most politically expedient way to do that, IMHO, is to impoverish those younger people by saddling them with having to repay the money their elders have borrowed to ensure their comfortable retirements in commodious surroundings.

  • Lifestyle issues have fascinated me for the nearly 40 years I’ve been involved in energy policy. To my mind, they’re central to the problem of reducing U.S. energy consumption — not so much because change must emanate from individuals (social pressure makes that real difficult) but because fear of a reduced or different lifestyle stands in the way of social acceptance of the policies that could bring about the lifestyle changes en masse.

    The article in Environment 360 by Rosenthal — an invaluable reporter who has somehow conned the the stodgy NY Times into giving her a beat on European green initiatives — is a welcome examination of the lifestyle taboo (“the other ‘L’ word,” I’ve called it). And on the whole it’s a terrific piece. Rosenthal adopts the persona of the pampered American — insisting on hiring a cab to the center of Stockholm from the airport instead of using transit, for example — who quickly comes to see that greener choices are not only societally ordained (which makes them easier to make) but are also usually more efficient and actually feel better.

    That’s a lovely journey, and Rosenthal peppers it with anecdotes and observations that come alive:

    In Europe it is far easier to channel your good intentions into action. And you feel far worse if you don’t. If nearly everyone is carrying a plastic bag (as in New York City) you don’t feel so bad. But if no one does (as in Dublin) you feel pretty irresponsible.

    Reading this, I remembered that just yesterday, stopped at a red light on Grand Street, I counted at least 15 shoppers toting those orange plastic Chinatown shopping bags … and no cloth bags. And ditto at my local Greenmarket this morning, except the plastic bags were a different color.

    So I’m truly dismayed at Ryan Avent’s hit job on Rosenthal’s piece. Ryan’s post misrepresents Rosenthal, misses her point, and misfires on key statistics. It’s a mess.

    Ryan’s first putdown comes near the top:

    [S]he opens the essay by discussing an experience she has in Stockholm, in which she insists on taking a taxi from the airport, which ends up being much slower and more expensive than the train.

    Yet Rosenthal copped to her own foolishness:

    I slunk into the cab, paid about $60 and spent the 45-minute ride feeling as guilty as if I’d built a coal-fired plant in my back yard… Two days later, although my flight left at 7 a.m., I took the Arlanda Express. It cost half as much and took 15 minutes to the terminal.

    That was Rosenthal’s signal that her inquiry into Europe’s green lifestyle would be full of surprises. I guess Ryan missed it.

    Worse, Ryan accuses Rosenthal of chalking up Europeans’ much lower carbon emissions than Americans’ to “Europeans’ unique tolerance of inconvenience.” Yet the bulk of Rosenthal’s article is taken up with discovering how smaller living spaces, more compact cities, adaptation to natural climate variations, and so forth are anything but inconvenient. Rather, Rosenthal discovers, “some of the necessary shifts in lifestyle are about changing habits, not giving up comfort or convenience.”

    Nor is Ryan any less muddled in explaining the vast differences in per capita energy use and carbon emissions between Texas and California, or the U.S. and Europe. He writes that “Californians are much greener than Texans, thanks to the moderate conditions along the heavily populated Pacific coast, which reduce the number of days on which home heating or cooling is needed.” Yet climate is just one factor among many, and can’t explain how, since 1975, per capita use of electricity in California has remained constant while growing 50% in Texas and the rest of the United States. The real reason for California’s relative greenness is policies that have created an astounding variety of energy-efficiency standards and incentives, along with higher electricity prices that have internalized the idea of energy conservation at the individual level.

    Similarly, U.S.-Euro differences in fuel mix for power generation cited by Ryan explain only part of the 2- and 3-fold difference in per capita carbon emissions, and are, of course, irrelevant to the 2-fold difference in per capita gasoline consumption.

    Sorry to have gone on at such length and with such vehemence. But this article could be the most wrongheaded post I’ve ever seen on this fabulous and indispensable blog.

  • s

    I also don’t think that Europeans have a “unique tolerance of inconvenience.” Ryan’s statement assumes that Europeans see American’s practice of driving ten miles in a two-ton vehicle to get a gallon of milk as more convenient than taking public transit, walking, or biking. Somewhere, there’s a European version of Ryan Avent writing about the unique tolerance of inconvenience in America!

  • Ryan Avent

    Charles, that policies are the main reason for Europe’s greenness is precisely my point. I’m suggesting that framing the adoption of policies that would make green living easy as something alien to the American character and on a par with an Italian love for clotheslines is extremely unhelpful.

  • Adam

    Charles Komanoff: interrupting thoughtful conversations with shrill screeds since 1992!

    This piece is hardly a hit job. Rather, it suggests that the lifestyle differences observed in Europe are not the result of a tolerance for inconvenience, but rather are a function of the built environment and policy environment in those countries. Komanoff would seem to agree with that premise, but why let that stand in the way of a wordy shoutdown?

  • Adam — How anyone can see Ryan’s negative post as “hardly a hit job” is beyond me. And I’ll admit that it gets my goat when someone (as Rosenthal did, bravely and good-humoredly) sends up her own foibles but is criticized (as Ryan did) as if she hadn’t recognized them. I also confess to a low tolerance for analytical sloppiness, of which there was an abundance in Ryan’s post. Can we at least agree that data matter?

  • While leaving the Stockholm airport I saw this train advert on the back of the seat:

    Also, I remember meeting a woman in downtown Copenhagen who had a couple of hours between flights. She said it was so easy to take the train from/to the airport.

  • Ann

    I can understand why Ms. Rosenthal took the cab. It seems that for some Americans, learning public transit, walking, and cycling is like learning a new language. I wonder if living in a walkable, bike-friendly city is becoming the new status symbol – a sign of health and high social capital.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    European Policy versus European Lifestyle in a steel cage death match at the nexus of Cultural Hegemony. What drives this battle are very clear decisions of Political Economy. Some one in Europe noticed that except for the shrinking North Sea fields, Europe pumps almost no oil. So Europe made some clear decisions regarding their authoritative allocation of resources. The clearest was to tax oil. The French also decided that a good way out was to build lots of Nuclear Power plants. Each region actually fights for the next one to be built. Still though, oil is very expensive. Germany, full of windmills and solar power, despite its Northern geography, has very advanced transportation systems and almost no air conditioning. All driven by the high cost of energy. What the Europeans do is make power expensive and then let the iron laws of the market take care of the rest. Regardless of whether the government is Socialist or Liberal that piece of the equation is seldom disturbed. Since Rommel gave up on taking the oil from North Africa Europe has looked at resources as finite, especially oil resources. Where would they get an idea like that. Don’t they know about “drill baby drill”? There has developed continent-wide “Enclosure Movement” with regards to energy resources.

    You see the same approach to conservation of farmland, highly valued in the areas immediately abutting cities.

    My personal opinion is that the parliamentary character of their governments allow cities to have their own political power and now with United Europe regions have diminished the connection to the national capitals and can look to the UE to resolve many land-use and environmental conflicts that the in the US must be negotiated in the Senate. And, if those government structures don’t work out, they might change them.

    We won’t ever change ours since we have a Holy Constitution, Divinely issue by God Himself guiding the steady hands of the slaveholders. That is Ideological Hegemony.

  • clever-title

    No two people place the same value on features of housing. Here in the US, people place a higher value on having widely separated houses and/or big houses, and a lower value on the time and money spent driving to everything.

    Much of this is likely based on familiarity. People in the US have been living in suburbs for several generations, so an en masse migration to cities is unlikely. It will take generations. Rising prices for fuel will accelerate it on the margin, but many people will give up other things before giving up a house in the exurbs. Many people in Europe, having never lived in American-style suburbs don’t have a desire to live that way.

    After living in a dorm and apartments for 6 years, and experiencing the sounds and smells of my neighbors; I am unwilling to give up a detached house. I chose to buy a smaller place in a suburb with traditional main street shopping and by commuter rail within walking distance, and within cycling distance to my office, Those were trade-offs that appealed to me (that is, I don’t want a big house to maintain, and I like to cycle to work), but I don’t expect anyone else to place the same values on those aspects of living.

  • Chris

    Christa. Copenhagen is famous for booking layovers to run into town to get a real lunch or just a look around. Its terribly close to the airport and of course the trains is fast and frequent.

    To all as to the article, Living in Europe is a different experience. Your living spaces are smaller. The ability to drive much harder or non existent. Etc. But for these changes to happen here we really need a severe tax on fuel. I have long stated (mostly on rail discussions) that where someone lives is not out of necessity as is often said, but by choice. I personally choose to live outside the major city but in a small town within walking distance to my job and short commute to the wife’s. We have only one car by choice. And we actually live a good life.

    Americans need to wake up and stop crying how things can’t be changed. Even if we on the blog were the only ones to change something today, it’d be a start. And others notice. People I work with who commute much further than I do have started moving closer or car pooling or in 1 case taking a bus instead of driving. One example can rub off. Too bad politicians are too stupid to understand.

  • “One is that it’s not really correct to attribute the huge gap in per capita emissions between America and Western Europe to the charming European habit of drying their clothes on clotheslines.

    As Brad notes, power sources play a major role, whether one is talking about greater use of natural gas, the French nuclear industry, or Iceland’s geothermal capacity.”

    I’m not sure what the point is supposed to be there, but power sources also “play a major role” in whether everyone can afford to blast their clothes with hot air twice a week. France’s nuclear power is expensive, so they use less. That nuclear is cleaner is a benefit on top of its expense. So, in France, yes there is a “tolerance of inconvenience” and it is born of practicality. They didn’t have coal or oil but they had des idées. The public was not somehow convinced that this would be painless, but that it would be necessary to preserve their heritage.

    Like Komanoff, I don’t see what this adversarial post adds to the discussion. It touts conclusions that were supposed to be evident in the original, while wanting to bury the fact that Europeans currently make very different sacrifices from us. I say different, because as everyone here knows there are many sacrifices in the American energy arrangement, they’re just not as immediately obvious or consequent to consumers. We are never going to trick people into thinking that it’s just as easy in the immediate sense to consume less, because it is not. We can and must do it by explaining the long term necessity and actual benefits of living differently.

  • To support Charles and Nathan, let me add this quote from TFA, with my emphasis:

    My point is that the low-carbon footprints depend on the infrastructure of life, and in that sense Europeans have an immediate advantage.

    In other words, inconvenience is determined by infrastructure, and infrastructure is to a large extent determined by government priorities. The Swedes take the train to the airport because their government made it much faster, cheaper and simpler than driving; people in Arizona drive because their government favored that way of doing things.

    The much more interesting question is how the governments got political support for these priorities. Rosenthal touches on that, and so does Ryan, but I’m not sure if anyone has come up with any good answers. It’s partly a feedback loop, but not entirely.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You have to consider that the age at which people purchase housing, typically in their late 20s and 30s, is the age at which they determine the built form, and those choices may not be suitable at other ages.

    You have a tradeoff between privacy and sociability. At one extreme you have the college dorm complained about above, at the other extreme you have the McMansion on a cul-de-sac with no “third place” at all and nowhere to go except by motor vehicle. The Brooklyn rowhouse I live in, and the railroad suburb chosen by the commentor above, are more balanced.

    When you are 35 years old, already have a spouse, already have friends, already are in a career, and don’t have time for much else, the benefits of a social space that encourage new acquintances may seem marginal. So many that age chose their own castle.

    That castle, however, limits the ability of their children to gain their independence, is unattractive to teens and young adults seeking social contact (see Rush, Subdivisions), and becomes increasingly inconvenient and isolating in old age. We are in the process, for example, of helping my in-laws relocate from a rural retirement home where it is a 15 minute drive for a quart of milk to a one-bedroom apartment in a downtown, because life is becomming impossible where they are. One third the square footage, three times the life.

    So if people in their 30s took the long view, perhaps they would choose differently. If, for example, they wanted a place where their kids could walk to their school, the store, or friends’ house, and could make friends locally, that would alter their views.

  • clever-title

    I think we are seeing more people reject the McManzion/exurb/isolated housing development in favor of less car-dependent communities. Maybe it’s just media focus, but I read more stories about people moving near walkable downtowns instead of big, isolated houses (and I’ve also noticed the same trends among friends buying houses). Hackettstown, NJ as the new Brooklyn is a common story in northern NJ.

    We need reductions of zoning restrictions (minimum lot size, residential-only, etc.)that make it difficult for builders to build infill, mixed-use development, or smaller dwellings, whether small detached houses or solidly-built rowhouses to serve that demand.

  • Hackettstown, NJ, is more than two hours by train from Penn Station, the same distance as Hudson, NY, and further away than Wilmington, DE. This is “the new Brooklyn?” Brooklyn is 20-30 minutes from Penn Station. How are people spending four hours a day commuting supposed to muster up any energy to enjoy those walkable downtowns?

  • JSD


    Maybe Hackettstown, NJ is developing a reputation as a place to both live and work. Not necessarily a commuters paradise, but perhaps people commute less to New York, and work only a couple of blocks away.

    For the record, I know absolutely nothing about Hackettstown besides what Wikipedia just told me.

  • State of NJ reports that there are only 500 jobs in Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation and 1,350 jobs in Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services in the Warren County/Hackettstown area.

    I feel that these small numbers support my argument that most of clever-title’s cohort is still commuting to New York or other job centers outside Warren County.

  • clever-title

    There are jobs between Warren County NJ, and NYC that can be reached via mass transit. The train line between Hackettstown and PSNY passes through Dover, Morristown, Madison, Summit, and Newark. In those towns are major pharmaceutical, financial, and technology companies that employ thousands. The local transit support group (TransOptions) coordinates shuttle buses between the stations and many major employers in those towns when there is sufficient demand. Also, more employers support telecommuting as a primary mode of work. So there are likely few people commuting all the way to NYC, but there are people who are making shorter commutes within NJ.

  • clever-title, the rail fare from Hackettstown to Newark Broad St is only $198 a month, within the new $230 limit for pretax qualified transportation fringe benefits. Maybe Hackettstown is the new Montclair.

    But getting back to your original point, about changes in zoning. I believe that such infill, mixed-use development as you describe is better suited to closer-in suburbs like Bloomfield or the Oranges. Hackettstown is a half hour west of Dover and a full hour west of Morristown via NJ Transit. If I’m living that far away from work, I’d like a big yard and second bathroom, not just a townhouse around the corner from the train station.

  • The Opoponax

    “People in the US have been living in suburbs for several generations, so an en masse migration to cities is unlikely.”

    Thinking about my friends and family, especially people who are outside of my local NYC area social circle, a lot of them are souring on the sprawl and traffic of suburban life. Quite a few people I know have recently relocated back into cities. Even more have chosen older less sprawled out neighborhoods within a suburban environment. I also know people who, having done the latter, are discovering that they LOVE living in a denser environment and really are looking into relocating to a major city or moving into more urbanized areas.

    Obviously, “some people I know” does not constitute “en masse”. But I doubt it’s as unpopular as you make it out to be, especially among younger people. Let’s just say that I don’t know anyone my age who is dying for more sprawl, a longer commute, or better proximity to strip malls and big box stores.

  • The Opoponax

    “If I’m living that far away from work, I’d like a big yard and second bathroom, not just a townhouse around the corner from the train station.”

    Why? I mean, not to harsh on individual choices (who knows why different people want what they want?), but I don’t entirely get this. This might be exactly the difference between American “convenience” and European “inconvenience”. You would actually prefer to waste time cutting grass and cleaning an extra bathroom? You’d prefer to pay the larger water bills from the sprinklers? You’d prefer to heat, water, and electrify a superfluous room?

    This isn’t really “convenience”, it’s a status symbol. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t have what you want, but it’s not exactly axiomatic that a yard and an extra bathroom are preferable to a townhouse in walking distance from public transit.

    I recently saw a documentary about American small town life which was produced for a European audience. My favorite part was the incredulity about Americans and their lawns.

  • clever-title

    I don’t think my observations (like seeing in increasing number Priuses with Obama stickers in a county where pickup trucks with McCain stickers are the norm) can be generalized either, but I think we’re going to see more emphasis on walkable communities overall.

    Even with the ARC/THE program, NJ Transit’s projections show that passenger loads will roughly double not long after the tunnels and new station are complete. Crowding, not cost, was the worst aspect of the commute when I did it a few years ago (albeit from a town much closer to NYC than Hackettstown). My wife tolerates it only because she loves her job. I hope that we’ll see more short intrastate commuting if communities drop the “bedroom community” mindset, and home and work are located at reasonable distances from each other, wherever they are.

    In any case, my original point was that there is a wide diversity of what people want. Some people value being in the country, some prefer living in towns, and others want to live in cities; and all options have trade-offs that people rate differently.

  • Opoponax, maybe my worldview is better suited to traditional suburb-to-city commuting, not the suburb-to-suburb commuting we’re discussing here. But that won’t stop me from commenting!

    I just assume that there are plenty of smaller, more dense options closer to work, and that most folks take on a longer commute because they want more room. Personally, I’m not so keen on cleaning that extra bathroom or watering the lawn. But I don’t have to look far from my cubicle to see people who commute home each evening beyond other, more convenient options, because they got a good deal on an apartment, or they are closer to their family, or they like the schools, or their current neighborhood has lots of restaurants and bars, or their spouse has a civil-service job in the town where they live.

  • Chris,

    Copenhagen is genius. I imagine that those quick jaunts to downtown, even just for lunch, really contributes to the downtown economy.

    For example, maybe the small taste of downtown inspires people to come back for a longer stay next time. Smart.

  • The Opoponax

    “But I don’t have to look far from my cubicle to see people who commute home each evening beyond other, more convenient options, because they got a good deal on an apartment, or they are closer to their family, or they like the schools, or their current neighborhood has lots of restaurants and bars, or their spouse has a civil-service job in the town where they live.”

    But none of those things are the same thing as doing so because you wanted a second bathroom.

    One of the things that irks me the most about suburbia and the way people think about it is this notion that one ought to make certain kinds of choices, because, like, that’s just what people do. Sure, if you’re going to live in Town X because of your spouse’s job, hey, they have McMansions there, so why not just buy one? Who doesn’t want 5 bathrooms and an acre of yard to mow? When of course the reality is that you might NOT want 5 bathrooms and an acre of yard. But you’re encouraged to go for that, because, heck, why not?

    And then, of course, the existence of McMansions (or any other negative aspect of sprawl) is defended as a deeply individual choice, and one is considered to be a communist for suggesting that McMansions (for example) are not a great thing. Even though most people probably really don’t want to live in them that much.

  • Phillip Huggan

    Simple way to increase fitness and make friends (good for mental health) is to mandate all new residential land is built as a “fused grid”:
    Looks like a Pacman maze from air, but many workplaces and bizs in walking distance.

    Grids are inefficient because too much pavement and unsafe intersections/traffic.

    Loops and Cul-de-Sacs, the typical suburbs, easy to get lost and long walking routes.

    The real prize would be engineering a modular way to cost-effectively convert some grids or Cul-de-Sacs into Fused Grids.

  • clever-title

    I wouldn’t call anyone a communist for not liking a McMansion. In fact, I’d point out that it is only by the socialist road system that McMansions in exurbs are economically viable for most people.



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Does the recent train derailment in Spain, which killed 79 people, justify America’s onerous approach to regulating rail safety? Federal Railroad Administration safety rules are designed to maximize “crashworthiness,” making U.S. passenger trains heavier and more expensive that their counterparts in European, where the safety approach is based on crash avoidance. So what do we have to […]

What Does American Exceptionalism Mean For Livable Streets?

Rush hour in Copenhagen. Photo: Complete Streets Coalition Is the United States exceptional? It’s a question that’s bedeviled activists and historians alike since the country was born 234 years ago this Sunday. It’s also a question that’s been bugging Barbara McCann, the executive director of the Complete Streets Coalition. She’s been at Velo-City, a bike […]

Climate Idealism Can’t Hold a Candle to Collective Action

Cross-posted from the Carbon Tax Center. Why do Copenhageners ride bicycles? The key reason, says Yale economist and bestselling author Robert J. Shiller, is that Danes are idealists who resolved, after the oil crisis of the 1970s, “to make a personal commitment to ride bicycles rather than drive, out of moral principle, even if that […]

How Infrastructure Shapes the Way We Move

This infrastructure makes only one choice possible. (Photo: prefers salt marsh via Flickr) Thanks to a few of the posts on the Streetsblog Network over the last 24 hours, we’re thinking about free will, morality and infrastructure. Jarrett Walker of Human Transit linked to a post from our newest network member, Michael D at Psystenance, […]