Saturday, May 31, 2008

How did we get here?

Much ink and pixels have been spilled upon how the US became so dependent upon petroleum to move ourselves around. I've been looking around, thinking about my behavior and that of others. So far, the rising cost of gasoline has affected my family very little because of our housing choice, a townhouse close to a major employment center and a commercial district.

Why are there so few places like this in the US? Witold Rybczynski tried to explain in his book, City Life: Urban expectations in the new world. It's a very thought provoking book and I won't attempt to paraphrase it here.

I did want to mention that, once hostile natives were not a problem, American cities were laid out upon a much more spacious model than in the old world. In Europe, cities were compact because food production took place outside the city confines. In the new world of the gentleman farmer, even city dwellers grew some of their own food in their home gardens. (Not mentioned in the book is how these kitchen and flower gardens evolved into monocultures of Kentucky bluegrass from coast to coast.)

By the end of the book, I learned that Rybczynski and I both choose to live in former streetcar suburbs outside of major cities. It is a pleasant middle ground that is not readily available to other Americans, both because of their rarity in new metropolitan areas and because they are relatively expensive compared to newer suburbs. After investigation, he found no great conspiracies. People just preferred the independence of driving private automobiles over riding streetcars.

People say we are lucky to live so close to work and to have such a convenient bus line. (It runs every 20-30 minutes and follows nearly the same route we would take if we drove ourselves.) Actually, luck had nothing to do with it. We made conscious choices with information that is available to everyone.

After earning my PhD, I landed two job offers. One was 30 miles inland from Mark's job. The other was at Mark's workplace. The farther job would have ensured a long commute for at least one of us.

When we bought a house, we checked the bus schedules. They are not classified state secrets, they are published. We took the buses to see if the schedules were fact or fiction--a very real problem in many areas. We checked out bicycle commute routes. I nixed neighborhoods that Mark preferred because I wasn't willing to bike so many hills on the way to work every day. (We also looked at school districts but that's too long of an aside.)

When we found we could not afford a house that we liked in an area that we liked, we looked at townhouses. After bidding on 3, we finally won a bidding war (even though we were not the highest bidder).


  1. Anonymous17:48

    Here's my L.A. experience: When I moved here for personal reasons, I applied for a job with a company that had its main office downtown and a branch in Chatsworth. My Personal Reason's workplace happened to be in Chatsworth. I held out for a job at the Chatsworth office of the company I was hoping to hire on with, and a year after landing a job there, we bought a house in Chatsworth that was about a mile from each of our workplaces.

    Eight years later my company closed and sold its Chatsworth office and transferred me downtown. My commute went from 3 minutes one way (most of that sitting at a traffic light) to a minimum of 48 minutes one way.

    Buses would take 4 hours one way. When gas hit $3.75, I started taking the Orange Line and Red Line (even though my 16-year-old Honda Civic averages 35 mpg). Door to door, this trip takes me (so far) between 92 and 110 minutes EACH WAY.

    And don't forget, bus lines can change. The MTA has cancelled many outright in the 10 years I've lived here, and I've heard that others are on the chopping block.

    But I should cheer up, because I'm likely to lose my job soon anyway because my company is crashing.

    (That was sarcasm. It's a far better fate for me to waste shocking amounts of time commuting than to lose my job, because I have become unre-employable. Also, the first month of my public transit commute allowed me to read "Guns, Germs and Steel." I look forward to more reading while riding.)

  2. Oooh, you have every right to be angry.

    The two-body problem is one reason that automobile use grows faster than population growth. Where one worker used to support a family, it now takes 2 (or 3) jobs. That's more commuting all around.

    The transit agencies have an insulting view of the value of their clients' time. Routes appear to be determined by what saves them the most $, not what gets people where they need to go in a time-efficient manner.

    And let's not even go there about how they will use eminent domain to replace low income housing with upscale housing, but they won't use eminent domain to put in straight rail lines. Look nor further than the convoluted paths taken by the blue and gold lines.

    80 years ago, you could get from Redondo Beach to downtown by one streetcar in about half an hour. Now, it takes more than twice that amount of time. You need to drive from residential Redondo Beach to the middle of an industrial section to catch the green line. Then you need to transfer to the blue line (sitting on a platform in the middle of the freeway, listening to 110 decibels of traffic and breathing carcinogens). The blue line only takes you to the edge of downtown. To get to most employers, one needs to transfer to the red line.

    The careless waste and abuse of transit riders' time is shocking. Why don't the cost benefit analyses include the value of our time? The transit riders' union puts up a good fight. If more people join the union, will that help? I don't know. But it surely can't hurt.

    And your workplace crashing even though your part of the company was profitable? I am outraged by the way you were and are treated. The $34/share price was only possible by robbing both you and the taxpayers. They exploited that tax loophole for employee retirement investments so the old owners to get more than the company was worth.

    To give millionaires and billionaires more $, they robbed the taxpayers of capital gains taxes they rightfully owned, they robbed you of your retirement funds, and their mismanagement will rob you of your future livelihood. That no one went to jail for this is beyond comprehension.

    Though you gotta admit, a recession does reduce traffic.

  3. Anonymous22:18

    Ah, and here I was being so careful to conceal the identity of "my company." I really didn't want to "get started" on any other aspect of what has happened there in the last 10 years, but I see I got YOU started! In addition to what you pointed out, they froze the traditional pension plan and have canceled the 401k match. And rank and file raises have been less than 2% the whole time I've been here -- when we've gotten any at all.

    Another thing I'm beyond angry about is that for my department, the bosses won't even consider letting us telecommute, even though our jobs could be done by computer from anywhere -- and probably will be someday when they're outsourced ...

  4. Your managers know your job can be done at home or anywhere with a computer and broadband. They just want you sitting in your office in the hopes that their bosses don't realize that also.

    I know someone at another company that closed their Long Beach office and merged them with the Burbank office. The commutes were hellish. But her manager pointed out that every other manager that let their workers telecommute say the department get outsourced to India. He did not want the same to happen to his group. Thus, they all made hellish commutes. They and the warming planet suffered.

  5. We picked to live somewhere we couldn't possibly afford a house - so we live in an apartment - but the tram goes past our door, there are multiple buses, and the train is only a 10 min walk and goes right to my work.

    I'd rather that, than paying for petrol (which costs more here than it does in the US) and all the other costs of a car. The labour market is tight here, too, so we get treated better (generally).

  6. The main problem with where we live now is that the bicycle commute is too short! Cutting my cycling time from 45 minutes to 20 minutes was a major sacrifice.

  7. Heh, I didn't pick my neighborhood: my babysitter did. That is, one evening when my first husband and I were driving to the sitter to pick up our son, we saw a house across the street for sale. We looked at it the next day and bought it.

    So I, too, live in a former streetcar suburb. Our commute is 3.4 miles door to door (we both work downtown). We drive because the bus is so unpleasant to use, and because the price of two monthly bus tickets is only a bit less than the price of a parking space downtown.


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