Richard Florida, having always been a little light on the “how to use data” side, has really drunk the New Urbanist Kool-Aid here late, and it’s been hard to sit through. One of his latest “light on evidence, heavy on major claims” forays explains to us in the Atlantic how commuting is, basically as bad for us as smoking or obesity. Here’s a quote:
Commuting is a health and psychological hazard, not to mention the carnage and wasted time on our over-clogged roads. It’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.
Are you kidding me? My walk to USC takes me an hour. The car trip takes me 15 minutes. I’m pretty sure that the hour is the healthiest part of my day, and that commute time has little to do with health. I get that when Florida says “commuting” he’s thinking car, but he’s addled up the theorized relationship between commuting time and health in so many ways my eyes are crossed.
I don’t have the energy to go into everything that is wrong with his claims, but fortunately David King from Columbia did take some time out to break down the problems. Take a look.
Here’s a couple of favorite quotes from King:
A more inconvenient truth for Florida is that the extreme commuters–those with commutes over 90 minutes–are most likely to get to work by commuter train. Advocates for rail transit to reduce commuting costs should be careful what they wish for. People driving to work alone have the shortest commutes, and commutes are growing most in suburb-to-suburb travel which are poorly served by any transit but rail in particular. The megaregions that Florida and others hold so dearly are also polycentric regions with employment centers spread out all over the place.
Commutes by transit are, on average, longer than in duration than car commutes, by any data set you use. So…I guess since according to the commutes are bad logic, transit commutes are so long that transit is actually bad for health. Sweet cracker sandwich. Maybe transit commuters spend so much time waiting for transfers they can’t go to the gym?
One point to note: King suggests that about half of US commuters commute less than 20 minutes. One thing he leaves out: that figure has remained remarkably stable over the years that we have been collecting data on commutes. My speculation is that if we could get transit commutes down to 20 minutes they would be much more competitive with cars (but they would also be competing with bicycles, too); I suspect that many people just have travel budgets, and over time people adjust their residential locations according to their preferred access locations–not necessarily the work location. I also suspect that many of the very long commutes we see in the data are people who don’t commute every day but still report their commute length, or are people in a “change mode”–they are in the process of changing jobs or lifestyles, and they are putting with a longer commute for constrained time period until the “right time to move” comes up. Leases are sticky, and so is house buying and selling. Cross-sectional data doesn’t describe these very well.
Another point, from commuting in America II:
Contrary to what some might expect, it is the smaller metropolitan areas that show strong center city dominance. In areas below 100,000 population, The internal center city flows alone are about half of all flows, but drop to below 24% at the highest metro size levels
King highlights this but doesn’t go the full way of critiquing the assumption: why anybody wouldn’t expect polycentricity to grow with region size is beyond me. It’s what urban economics would teach us to expect as a land market response to higher downtown costs.