Thursday, March 19, 2009

Exurbs: How Far Is Too Far?

I’ve previously posted about why the nation’s worst housing markets are in the exurbs. A reader commented:

There has to be a sweet spot for these exurb communities. How far is just right to commute? 30 minutes one way? 45? Surely people think nothing of traveling across a city for work at 50 minutes per trip, so living 30ish miles out of town really isn't as bad. So, how far is too far?

The short answer is, if the commute is more from 30 minutes one way, it’s too much. Tom Vanderbilt, from his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do:

In the 1970’s, Yacov Zahavi, and Israeli economist working for the World Bank, introduced a theory he called the “travel time budget.” He suggested that people were willing to devote a certain part of each day to moving around. Interestingly, Zahavi found that this time was “practically the same” in all kinds of different locations. The small English city of Kingston-upon-Hull’s physical area was only 4.4% the size of London; nevertheless, Zahavi found, car drivers in both places averaged three-quarters of an hour each day. The only difference was that London drivers made fewer, longer trips, while Kingston-upon-Hull drivers made frequent, shorter trips. In any case, the time spent driving was about the same…

There seems to be some innate human limit for travel – which makes sense, after all, if one sleeps eight hours, spends a few hours eating (and not in the car), and crams in a hobby or a child’s tap dance recital. Not much time is left. Studies have shown that satisfaction with one’s commute begins to drop off at around 30 minutes each way.

However, obviously many people spend more than an hour a day in total commute time. Why is that? Jonah Lehrer suggests it’s a weighting mistake, in his book How We Decide:

As Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at Radboud Univeristy, in the Netherlands, notes, when people are shopping for real estate, they often fall victim to…what he calls a “weighting mistake.” Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment located in the middle of the city which will give you a ten minute commute, and a five-bedroom McMansion in the suburbs which will result in a 45 minute commute. “People will think about this trade-off for a long time,” Dijksterhuis says, “and most of them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or an extra bedroom is very important for when Grandma and Grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is not really that bad.” What’s interesting is the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They’ll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that turns the suburban house into a necessity. The lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when it’s compared to the lure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, the reasoning is backward: “The additional bathroom is a complete superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while.”

I think it’s a big mistake to locate housing more than 30 minutes from major employment centers. Strategies which depend on people making errors in judgment usually don’t work out well in the long run.