Thoughts on cars and travel

Just a quick post, as I am on the road this week, with speeches in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Since I live in New York City, and work out of my home office, I don’t spend a whole lot of time driving. But this week, as I’m out in the midwest, I rented a car and have been hopping around in it. It has made me convinced, more than ever, that one of the reasons we feel we have no time is that we are always driving around to different places. There is something about loading up the car, driving somewhere, and finding parking, which adds to the transaction costs of every activity. Or things just blend into each other (a frequent complaint I get from parents is that they spend 3-6pm each weekday functioning as a taxi service). Imagine if we spent more time walking places, or had more families with one car (thus forcing us to spend time together). I know there are trade-offs — I am amazed at the amount of real estate one can buy out here — but I have such a hard time getting my head around living somewhere that I couldn’t walk to buy milk. I’m curious how much time people think they spend in the car per day.

20 thoughts on “Thoughts on cars and travel

  1. I live in uber-suburbia; I can’t walk to get milk unless I’m heading to the 7-11 for some overpriced moo. While we have two cars, my husband and I both work from home, so we don’t drive as much as others. We’d get rid of one, but we’ve had too many instances of both of us needing to be in different places to make that a reality. We were a one car family for many, many years. Someday we’ll go back. I don’t spend nearly as much time in the car as some moms, as my kids aren’t in after school activities, but I still find time blends together. Still working on that…

  2. We both work from home but the preschool we chose is a good 20 minutes away. That 20 minutes takes us into the canyon and into a school yard complete with a pig, pony and goat- a far cry from our southern California suburb, but the drive certainly eats into my productive time. We made a concious decision when we move to ourf current home to be close to everygthing. Many mornings we walk about a mile to a coffee shop and target and whole foods are in the same center.
    I would love to only have 1 car, but we enjoy the flexibility of two.
    I think your argument/observation is correct in many intances, but I gthink proximity is key. Plenty of people in New York have a long commute- and I remember a day of running around to get things for a dinner party actually took longer because I did it all on foot. Those were the pre-trader joes days, though.

  3. I live in a Long Island suburb on the Queens/Nassau border, and purposely chose my neighborhood for it’s proximity to places I can walk to, though doing so with a preschooler who can’t stand a stroller means adding in lots extra time for the journey.

    My son’s pre-school is a few minutes away, and I bike it when I can, as it actually takes the same amount of time by bike and by car. (my son is about to outgrow the bike seat!)

    We are a two-car family and I purposely chose a minivan so I could trading off driving duties with a friend. It was a way to do less driving. I also chunk my errands together to avoid being in the car more than necessary. When I return to work next year I can also bike there, as it’s only about a mile away.

    I recently visited a friend upstate and was amazed at how often we HAD to get in the car to do things. Here I feel I have a choice, and try my best to avoid the car when I can. (having fewer errands to run would really help with this, but I haven’t figured out how to avoid them all yet)

  4. My husband and I work from home. And he bikes to his bank (chosen for its proximity). Unfortunately, school is too far away – and roads are too busy. Though I view the taxi time though as one-on-one time that I sometimes don’t get at home with all of the distractions.

  5. Definitely better to walk.

    BUT, I also could not find affordable, quality childcare walking to my house, so we are driving 1/2 hour to daycare and 1/2 hour back, depending on time of day. I do count that 1/2 hour as time with my kid and I try to do a book on tape or make work phone calls.

    Walking or doing errands with children of certain ages is definitely an issue and in many cases easier to do errands without the kids but of course doing them with your kids lets you spend time with them.

  6. My quality of life has improved enormously since I bought the house around the corner from my office. I got tired of 70-mile round trip commutes or in-town commutes over 10 miles that took an hour each way.

    1. @Beth (and everyone) – thanks for these responses. I’ve just been thinking of this (as I’m trying not to get killed by trucks passing me on the right… but I digress). In theory, cars should save us time, as they’re a lot quicker. But on the other hand, we then expand the distances we’re willing to travel, a willingness that gets built into everything from where people build houses and what kinds of houses look normal to zoning regulations. It reminds me of what I discovered writing 168 Hours with housework. Technology like washing machines and quicker ovens and dishwashers were supposed to save housewives time. But when you look at 1950s-1960s magazines, it appears that much of this time was then given to achieving higher standards — more elaborate dishes, more pristine houses, washing the dishes before you stick them in the dishwasher, getting clothes that really need a lot of ironing… Time has to be filled with something. So when cars save us time we then fill it with…more driving.

  7. We are a THREE car family who live in the suburbs. The only places we can walk are church and the elementary school. Jr. High and High School require busing, but since two kids are in high school, the 16-year-old drives both of them there and gets herself directly to her afterschool job while the 15-year-old takes the bus home. Both parents work a traditional 9-5 job, so it’s been worth it for my daughter to have a used car and help drive her siblings to afterschool activities as needed. Hubby has a company car, so we only have the expense of two vehicles. I love the convenience of the kids being able to get themselves where they need to be so much, I’m seriously considering looking for a junker for my son when he turns 16!

  8. I commute 90 miles a day and, as I am lucky enough that I don’t encounter alot of traffic, it “only” takes me 1 hour each way. So it adds 2 hours to my “work-related” time. I listen to audio books all the time when I drive – it saves my sanity. I barely notice the time when I am really engaged. There is the issue of the cost of the gas, though. But living in a rural area, I can’t find a job locally.

  9. Thirty five minutes one way. Doesn’t sound like much does it, especially when compared with so many people who have three hour commutes? But I can live a lifetime in those thirty five minutes. I run a school that my children attend and we spend those commutes talking and talking. Sometimes there are lectures which I’m sure they don’t enjoy but most days they ask questions and we have those wonderful teaching moments. I’m even happy when the traffic is backed up. I know God is on my side when the traffic is backed up. Without fail when we are on a really important subject we either get stuck at a light or behind a fender bender. All this with an uncommunicative teenager or two thrown in! What a gift!

  10. I think about this a lot, as we live about 25 minutes from my kids’ school, and I commute another 15 mins or so to my work from there. And then the reverse in the evenings (but longer because there’s more traffic). I long to live somewhere close to both school and work, and to a bus line to the city, because that’s where they will go to school next (and they will bus, I won’t be driving there and back).

    I love where we live out in the country-city (on almost an acre) but the time in the car is making me crazy. 17 years of it is ENOUGH. I just want more time with my family, more time at home, less evening crazies while I rush to make dinner, we eat, and then it’s time for bed. Weekdays are just a blur of getting ready, driving, work/school/ getting home, dinner, and getting ready for bed. It’s just not working for me.

    1. @Stacia: I hear you. This is one of my biggest fears of moving out to the burbs is that I will spend my life in the car. It is nice to have space for kids to play, but you can get some of that with being able to walk to playgrounds (and the playgrounds are more social). I am hoping to live somewhere that my kids can walk to school, but I know that is a luxury many places.

  11. I’m a city planner and have some observations on this issue.

    Laura, you are right about this source of stress and drain on our time budgets.

    Think of a commute of between 20 and 30 minutes each way.

    That’s an hour a day, say 48 weeks a year, 5 days a week — that totals 240 hours a year, or SIX 40-HOUR WORK WEEKS spent in traffic.

    That’s time we can’t spend cooking good homemade meals, playing games outdoors with our increasingly obese and puffy children, volunteering in our communities, or even working overtime (for those with that particular pathology or unfortunate circumstance).

    Not only that, but studies show that the time spent driving is one of the least enjoyable, most stressful activities that Americans participate in. It’s shown to depress our mood and make us more aggressive or irritable.

    One extensive study found that the length of one’s commute is directly related to unhappiness (the longer the commute, the lower the measured “life happiness” levels, regardless of whether the subject thought he/she enjoyed or detested the commute).

    So it’s not only detrimental to time allocation, productivity, and leisure — it actually *makes us miserable* .

    Also, since it costs about $5,000 a year to own and maintain a vehicle, or about 1/4 of most people’s after-tax income, we typically work the entire months of January, February, and March just to pay for our driving habits.

    If you take that $ 5,000/ year and apply it to a 30-year mortgage at 4.5%, you could afford a house that costs $80,000 more than otherwise. (There’s your “affordable housing” problem, solved for most working households. We don’t have an affordable housing problem in this country — we have a car-dependency problem. )

    One little other thing also — nearly all the money we in the USA spend on gas goes straight to oil-producing countries that either outright hate us, or don’t share our values of democracy and political/religious freedoms.

    But I know this is a time-budgeting blog, so I will focus on the 240 wasted hours.

    1. @Betsy – yes, it is fascinating how much time we spend in our cars, and how little we like it. I was certainly tense about driving on the highways around Pittsburgh! Of course, here’s the question: why do we have the situation we do? In much of the country, there is very little mixed-use development (workplaces, homes, schools, facilities right by each other within walking distances). Is this because we built the highways, and then came up with a use for them? Because we over-value having a lawn and extra space in our houses? enough to spend hours in the car?

  12. Wellllll …. where do I start.

    First, starting in the 40’s and continuing for about the first three decades of the program, the Federal Housing Administration only guaranteed home mortgages for detached, single-family houses, and only if they were on large lots, with suburban-style yards and setbacks.

    The federal mortgage guarantee didn’t apply to traditional row houses or flats, so hardly any normal person could get a loan on those properties. Result, everyone bought dwellings in the suburbs because that was the only place that regular people could qualify for a mortgage loan.

    At the same time, the Federal Highway Administration began building a massive highway system that was subsidized (80% of the cost paid for by the federal government; states paid a 20% share). Four-lane freeways cut through or ringed every major and many minor cities, providing free travel routes to the countryside, which (as a result of the ease of car travel) quickly converted to tract housing sprawl.

    This started in the 40’s and has continued for six decades. Any highway to be built automatically qualifies for the 80% federal funding; in contrast, transit systems do not.

    Many of these highways also were designed, either deliberately or just carelessly, to cut right through some of the most vibrant urban neighborhoods, eliminating the neighborhoods entirely or severing old neighborhood connections and placing on-ramps and overpasses on top of homes and businesses.

    One that didn’t get built (thanks to activist Jane Jacobs) was planned to cut right through Washington Square and would have eliminated much of her Greenwich Village neighborhood.

    But in most cities, no one could stop the highways.

    Next … the banks that were giving mortgage loans “red-lined” (that is, refused to lend in) most minority, ethnic, and urban neighborhoods, due to either active discrimination, or a (less hostile) lack of understanding. White, privileged bankers held the suburbs in esteem, and so their lending policy reflected this.

    (The Civil Rights Act for the most part put an end to racial discrimination in bank lending. Of course, many realtors still steer clients towards certain neighborhoods based on race, which is also illegal. I’ve personally seen it happen in both New York City and in Raleigh, where I live.)

    Also …. local governments (cities and towns) from the 1950s to the last decade used condemnation powers to acquire large areas of urban neighborhoods and remove them.

    That’s right; REMOVE them. Raze them; flatten them; demolish them. Hundreds of thousands of dwellings, shops, and workplaces — mostly a fine-grained mix of uses, most often in beautifully crafted historic buildings — were demolished in every city across the land.

    In St. Louis. In Richmond. In Jacksonville. In Cleveland. In Albany. In Charlotte. In Atlanta. In Hartford. In Boston. In Springfield. Everywhere. This went on for five decades.

    (The World Trade Center, for example, was built on much of New York’s liveliest and most extensive, and also its oldest, urban fabric. This project was massively subsidized and actually never made any money, and it never would have happened without state and city intervention and taxpayer cash.)

    But more frequently, this condemnation power was used by cities in the name of “urban renewal” — they would raze block after block after block of row houses, stores, and small older apartment buildings, and then erect hi-rise housing projects.

    These projects, as concentrated populations of poor people, for the most part became social problems immediately. Some were blown up soon after their construction because they were so unlivable (Pruitt-Igoe is one example.) “The projects” is a term that today still invokes horror and fear.

    This, again, is an artificial result of government intervention; not a natural feature of urban neighborhoods.

    OK. To continue. … Another major contributor to suburbanization was when GM and other car companies conspired to buy up urban streetcar systems, and shut them down so people would have to drive everywhere and thus, buy cars.

    (At one time, nearly every city in the U.S. with population over 10,000 had at least one streetcar company)


    So, by the 1950s, as a result of this anti-competitive collusion, almost every streetcar system in the country was gone.

    Also. … Since about the 1940s and 50s, nearly every city and town in the USA enacted zoning ordinances that required deep / wide yards for residential areas, … and massive amounts of parking spaces around every new retail, commercial, and industrial land use.

    There wasn’t enough land in urban areas to put all these yards and parking spaces, so nearly all new development went out to “greenfield” sites in what used to be the countryside. (See

    So (at the office where I work, for example) there is a massive parking lot that is full of cars by day, and empty at night. And right next door to my office, is an apartment complex with a massive parking lot that is EMPTY of cars by day, and FULL at night. The zoning policies required both of these parking lots, which are mutually redundant.

    Of course, the parking is necessary because of the free/subsidized public highways, which make it possible for everyone to drive long distances, which means that you have to have a 10′ x 18′ space to put your car when you get there. If you eliminated the parking and the freeways, things might actually be close enough together that you could walk!

    … Then there’s the gas tax, which everywhere in the US is way, way, way too low to actually pay for roads.

    People think that their gas tax somehow finances roads, but it only accounts for a tiny fraction. The federal government pays for 80% of the cost of construction (the money comes from the federal income tax, mostly).

    So there’s no “pocketbook connection” — no financial incentive or “price signal” to drivers and non-drivers. The roads are “free” to use, so everyone uses them — but they’re not really “free”, it’s just that their massive, massive cost is hidden away in the federal budget, for the most part.

    Also … disinvestment in traditional urban places. You can see that the money that was spent subsidizing sprawl, building highways, and dumped into “urban renewal” projects (now mocked as “urban removal”) — was money that was NOT available for improving public schools, great city parks, sidewalks, and other elements that (if provided properly) make living in cities workable for families.

    Basically, the greatest nation on earth spent its great economic expansion years between 1950 to the present POURING money into building an unsustainable, unlivable, drive-only system of land development,

    … which now surrounds every town and city with vast expanses of miserable, oil-dependent, depression-inducing sprawl. It is, in the words of James Howard Kunstler, “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”

    Also … well, this post is already long enough; I think you get the idea.

    Basically, suburban single-use sprawl is NOT the result of the preferences of the private market, such as “a desire to have a lawn” (most people actually hate yard work, and would love to live next to a park where the kids could play, instead of every household having to maintain its own playground).

    Rather, sprawl is the result of decades of massive interventions and distortions — mostly in the form of subsidies and counterproductive government policies — and also, to some extent, racial discrimination as well as a cultural bias against cities that dates to the early years of our nation’s founding.

    1. @Betsy – thanks for the primer! I am likely including a section on the cost of commuting and the unhappiness that sprawl produces in the next book, so I’m glad to have this information. I love New York. On the other hand, it is very expensive, and while I don’t have a small apartment by NYC standards (1600 square feet), with four of us, it starts feeling a bit cramped. I would love to be able to walk to things, but I also am tempted by the idea of having twice as much space and paying half as much. Though as you point out, you make up the cost in your cars…

  13. Laura, I look forward to that book with eagerness! There is a lot of good research on sprawl, happiness, anomie, and commuting, and no doubt it will relate to your chosen subject.

    The challenge, going forward, is to create in most medium-sized, “normal” towns and cities, a walkable and livable development pattern. Most people wouldn’t regard San Francisco or NYC as “normal” or typical American places, as wonderful as those cities are.

    As long as these outliers are among the only places where one can walk and find all one’s needs in one’s own walkable neighborhood, American urbanism will have failed. We need for our smaller and regional communities to be as livable and walkable in their own way.

    Any other questions you may have, I will be glad to try help with answers.

    The very best primer I’ve seen on this subject is “The Geography of Nowhere”, (J H Kunstler)which explains in vivid and fascinating detail the social history of how we got where we are with sprawl and oil-dependency. Also see his delightfully inflammatory blog at

    Also very relevant is “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (Jane Jacobs, who was in real life the inspiration for the phrase “little old lady in tennis shoes who fought City Hall”).

    Jacobs’ writing on the value of great urban places — for children, for economic productivity, for mental health, for social bonds — is unparalleled.

    And as a conservative, you may especially like the way she takes apart government gigantism at its worst.

  14. In Oregon, farmland is preserved and houses cannot be built on it. Often older homes (50-100 years old) are “preserved” and denser condos/apartments cannot be built on that land, limiting population density. If an employer grows in one town, people purchase homes in surrounding, dying communities (logging towns) and commute to the available jobs. Houses that used to be close to work when logging was a major industry are no longer close to any employment, due to both appropriate and inappropriate environmental restrictions on logging.

    1. @Twin Mom: It is fascinating to think what our country would look like in the absence of various policies, good and bad. Maybe we’d live in denser towns with open space around it, or maybe we’d live strip mall style, or maybe we’d all be riding trains. Who knows? I’m really enjoying learning about this issue.

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