Miles To Go Before I Sleep!

The sprawl vs. smart growth and New Urbanism debate is far from a black and white issue. Planners must account for the complexities of commutes and demographic patterns when deciding how best to approach land use issues, writes Sriram Khé, PhD, Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University, in this Op-Ed.

 Sriram Khé

In his May 15th op-ed piece for Planetizen, "Connecting The Dots On High Gas Prices", Anthony Flint raises a number of issues related to sprawl and development. How ever much I am a fan of compact growth and New Urbanist neighborhoods, I am not completely in agreement with Flint.

Flint opens the op-ed with a description of his friend who switched jobs and then was able to ride public transit for ten minutes to work, instead of driving an hour to the other job that he quit. I am glad that it worked out that well for his friend. In an autoethnographic mode, allow me to turn the light on my data -- me -- and see how home, work, and commute are related in ways more complicated than Flint would have us believe.

In two previous op-eds (October 2005 and September 2004) I highlighted some of my personal and professional struggles with sprawl and New Urbanism. As I reflect on my own experiences, I find that Flint overlooks a few significant aspects of the impact of land use decisions on everyday life. In particular, Flint mixes up two issues: how and where we live, and how far this living place is from the workplace.

When I lived in Bakersfield, California, commuting to my job in downtown took around ten minutes. I changed jobs in order to return to academia, and my commute time more than doubled to about 25 minutes each direction, as I had to drive from the northeast corner of town, past downtown, to its southwest end. (In years since, Bakersfield has further expanded in all directions.)

After my family and I moved to Oregon, we lucked out in finding ourselves completely at home in a New Urbanist neighborhood, where the entire street is a modern re-creation of 1930s bungalow-style craftsman houses. There is, of course, a dramatic change in the way I live - from a tract home on a 7,500 sq.ft. lot to a craftsman home on a lot that is less than 5,000 sq.ft. Much more dramatic is how the commute time has lengthened - from 25 minutes to 75 minutes each way.

My experience of finding a new job, relocating, and the resulting commute is a total contrast to Flint's friend's experience. And, yes, as Flint notes, filling up the gas tank is no fun when driving to my work place, which is about 65 miles away.

Every term I can count on students wondering aloud why I have such a long commute. The reason is quite simple: the decision on where to live is based not only on my relationship to my job, but takes into account my wife's job as well. Given the vagaries of academic employment - both my wife and I are in academia - my long commute is, therefore, a natural outcome.

I find that many of my colleagues who have lengthy commutes also come from households where both partners are actively pursuing their respective careers. Interestingly, many of my colleagues who are within biking or walking distance from work are either single or are in single-career households. And many former colleagues quit because their partners could not find employment within a "driving distance", whatever that distance might be.

This is exactly what formal research has also revealed. Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn found that with increase in the college education of women and their participation in the labor force, households are forced to solve complex co-locational problems. Our contemporary situations are far removed from the households of the Cleavers and the Cunninghams of the past, where the work-home location problem had only one constraint - the father's place of work. (I suspect that sprawl started with the Cleavers and Cunninghams.)

My wife and I are also examples of the households analyzed by Helen Jarvis, who reports that families "are far more likely to accommodate changes in individual job, school and socialising activities by extending the volume and reach of everyday circulation than they are to question the permanence of their 'hub' residential location." Extending the volume and reach is simply academic speak for "drive a lot of miles"!

Thus, if I look at my "hub", I am a committed New Urbanist who is absolutely delighted with my residential choice. On the other hand, I drive 65 miles each way to work, which means I am a poster-child for urban sprawl.

The New Urbanism in how and where I live is, therefore, quite an amazing contrast to the literal miles that I have to go before I can sleep at home. This is the kind of nuance that is missing in Anthony Flint's op-ed. In fact, Flint and many other researchers commit the same mistake of conveniently framing the issues by using words such as "battle", which tend to convey an impression that there only two sides, a good one versus the bad.

The urban landscape is a result of the nuances and tradeoffs at every level - in decisions made by individual consumers and households, all the way to the federal government. While I am not particularly a fan of Thomas Sowell's ideologies, one of his comments is relevant here. In a column about housing, Sowell wrote that after giving a talk he was confronted by a lady who asked for Sowell's solution to the problem, to which his reply was that "there are no solutions -- there are only trade-offs."

The research and planning we need is about how such nuances affect the way we use land. While big picture discussions such as Flint's essay might provide a feeling of a grand story about sprawl, we need to get past the overarching narratives and instead explore the local, ground-level complexities and contradictions in land use.

Sriram Khé is an Associate Professor of Geography at Western Oregon University. Prior to this, he taught at California State University-Bakersfield, and was an Associate Planner with the Kern Council of Governments.


Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn. 2000. "Power Couples: Changes in the Locational Choice of the College Educated, 1940-1900". The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 115, No. 4, pp. 1287-1315.

Helen Jarvis. 2003. "Dispelling the Myth that Preference makes Practice in Residential Location and Transport Behaviour". Housing Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 587-606.

Thomas Sowell. February 6, 2004. "Housing Hurdles: Part II".



Grey areas

Sprawl relates to more than just how far one must drive to work. Yes, 65 miles one way to work is a long way; however, if you do not have to get in your car and drive to the grocery store for a quart of milk, or take your kids to the park on the weekend, than you are not contributing additional miles traveled for those activities. Compact, mixed used communities are beneficial because you don't have to drive for every errand or activity. So, living in a 'New Urbanist' community, even if its far from your work, still probably is a net benefit because of the reduced driving you can do for other activities. Also, the more people that choose to live in these communities, the more will be built as developers respond to demand. New Urbanism will be truly successful when it is no longer viewed as an elitist thing for those that can afford it (which to me it seems to be), but a viable choice for any income.



That's a bunch of Baloney! A Net Benefit by living in a New Urbanist community and driving 65 miles to work? To be able to afford such a commute when gas prices are as expensive as they are now is elitist, detrimental to existing towns and cities and the urban infrastructure, and to the planet, in choosing to live so far from where one works. New Urbanism consistently fails to address issues in transportation, environmental issues, and affordable housing issues as a movement in architecture and planning as it is put into practice today, and by doing so remains an elitist and insular form of urban planning.


I have to agree with Frank

I have to agree with Frank here. I have to wonder what the value of being a "committed new urbanist" is in this case.

Cheap shot

How would this particular situation not be just as as a much of a problem with conventional subruban development?? Jobs in academia are highly competitive and typically located in semi-rural areas with very little job diversity.

Isn't the real problem here that this is a very specific case of a two income family in which both spouses have high specialized careers in a post-modern economy that values mobility and flexibility over family and community stability?

Choices to Make

I agree with this article 100%. This article echoed my recent family experience as we moved across the states for my spouse to pursue an academic career and raise a family. To balance my spouse’s work, our children’s daycare & school and my career, I am commuting around 58 miles one way to work ( I drove approximately halve way before riding a bus, but not everyone is so fortunate). Housing location is not simply about job. It is definitely about balancing and trade-offs of life. Many Long-Range Transportation Plans are based on travel demand models with an emphasis in job-housing balance. Just how realistic is to work and live near by. Perhaps, the planners and engineers should examine this issue more carefully before many bold statements are made.

To make the Job-Housing Balance assumption really works, the following local/state ordinances/laws need to be considered:

1) Only single-career households are permitted.
2) Workers are required to be paid/subsidized by their employers at/to an affordable wage to live near to their employment.
3) All employment is located within ¼ mile from a bus/rail/trail line.
4) Or workers can not accept any job outside of the job-housing balance zone without the permission of a local/regional authority.
5) Assuming everyone can work at home as a consultant or professor. Only consultants and professors may move in.
6) And many others.

Once again, life is about choice. Especially In America, we encourage freedom in the way we speak and live. Any communities should have the choice in how to shape themselves and they should be encouraged to offer different type of options from single-land use to mixed land use. As for energy, all energy options (fuel cell, hybrid power, E-85, bio-diesel, etc.) and alternative mode of transportation (tele-working, biking, public transportation, etc.) should be explored and tried. In another word, flexibility and mobility must be incorporated into family and community.

They are just some thoughts.

Miles To Go - By Transit

I don't see the point of this article. The author is just saying that he lives in a New Urbanist neighborhood where he can walk but in a sprawling region where he has to drive a long distance to work - and he seems to think he is making a general point about smart growth.

Let's do a thought experiment by imagining that his entire region was designed according to smart-growth principles. Then he could live in a walkable neighborhood and take transit to work. With higher densities, the distance he commuted would be shorter than it is in tha sprawl region where he lives now.

I don't think anyone ever claimed that jobs-housing balance would give every single person a short commute. It is just one part of a larger smart-growth agenda that includes transit oriented development, walkable neighborhoods, and higher densities.

Some people could have shorter commutes, and others could have the option of commuting by transit. No one would be forced into the long freeway commute that most Americans are forced into today.

That is the goal. There are obviously many personal trade-offs when people live in regions that are a mix of smart growth and sprawl.

Charles Siegel

Miles to Go Before We Understand

I think this is an excellent article. Those who are trying to dismiss the author's points live in a black/white world where everything must be for or against smart growth. In the real world, there are a million shades of gray, and we will be better planners and designers if we see this reality.

Not all New Urbanist neighborhoods are necessarily smart growth, though New Urbanist neighborhoods help promote the overall cause of smart growth, especially when they have the proper regional location.

Jobs-housing balance is a worthwhile goal, but it may be more complex than we often portray. Just because jobs and housing are balanced does not mean that someone who lives in an area will be able to find employment in that same area.

Instead of trying to dismiss perspectives that reveal the complexity of the issues we are dealing with, we should embrace these perspectives as an opportunity to learn.


This article eloquently described how I think a lot of earnest, well-meaning people struggle with their career and housing choices. I face a 60-90 minute commute each way to the city where I work. I struggle with this because while I love my job, I spend a lot of time away from my family. Plus, I’m helping to congest the roads, pollute the air, etc. But, the quality of life in the city where I work – I tried living there for two years – is far below that which I experience where I live. The misery of commuting is less than the misery of living in a place that isn’t right for me.

I console myself with the fact that I carpool to work on most days, and that once I’m at home, my need to drive is minimal. My bicycle, feet and transit can get me to most of the places I need to go.

Thanks for putting into words the angst that many people feel over this issue. I don’t think it’s as black and white as many would suggest.

Khe' chooses form over function

We planners often complain that suburban homeowners choose their housing based upon form, without considering the function of the neighborhood or its location relative to their employment. The result is often that the family is living in the "McMansion" of their dreams on a quarter acre of paradise while being forced to settle for a neighborhood without sidewalks and parks, located many miles from commercial services or employment.

Dr. Khe' has made the same choice, except he has chosen a spiffy new replica of a craftsman bungalow instead of a McMansion. His new urbanist community probably addresses some of the shortcomings of the traditional suburban subdivision (probably sidewalks and parks, perhaps even mixed uses within walking and biking distance). But the bottom line is that he is still driving many miles to and from work each day, which costs him a great deal of time and money and adds to traffic congestion and air pollution that impacts citizens in the rest of his region.

Whether he would be any better off living in a traditional suburban community closer to his work depends on your perspective. If you are a transportation planner or an environmentalist concerned with air quality, the answer is probably yes. Dr. Khe' clearly has a much different personal calculus at work. Living closer to his work would probably mean that he could not live in the New Urbanist style community that he and his wife prefer. So, as long as he is willing to endure the stress and cost of his commute and the time apart from his family, then perhaps it is worth it to him. In the end, it is his choice.

New Urbanist communities are not necessarily a cure for sprawl, especially when they are built in remote suburban or exurban locations. Khe's neighborhood may in fact be "good" New Urbanism, located near jobs and transit. Planners can not - and should not - control whether or not new residents in these communities ride transit, walk or drive 100 miles each way to get to work. Planners should work to make sure there are more of these "good" New Urbanist communities available in appropriate locations, as Flint suggests in the article that Khe' is rebutting. Consumers need choices and alternatives to consider when the calculus changes in their lives, and they no longer desire to (or can afford to) commute hundreds of miles each day.

I do have a bit of personal experience with this. I too have a wife with a challenging career in academia. Seven years ago she had a University job that she loved with a commute she hated. After enduring the daily stress of driving 90 miles a day for three years (and wearing out one new car in the process) she changed jobs. She now teaches at a public high school 7 miles away from our real craftsman bungalow (circa 1926)located in a real downtown. While she would prefer to work at the University level, she has never regretted her decision based upon our quality of life. And myself? I'm a planner, and enjoy riding my bike to work -- its only a mile away. We could have lived almost anywhere in our region, and this was our choice.

Segmentation of planning damages the field

This is the precise issue about which I have written countless times. I am amazed at the intractability within certain planning "camps." It is a handful of,dare I say, zealots, within each camp that stoke the fires of resentement. There are Smarth Growth folks, New Urbanists,Creative Class, TOD people, Joel Klotkin "suburban superiors" all fighting to advance a theory absent real world considerations. I happen to be a Smart Growth/New urbanist/dense construction type of urban revitalization specialist. But I can assure you that the exurbs are not going away(even if I wanted them to!). Far too much time is expended on "purists" who will never see their utopia realized--whatever that may be.

The rest of us should advocate for our respective positions and let the purists walllow in their sanctimony!

Charles D'Aprix(Chuck D'Aprix)
The Downtown Entrepreneurship Project/Economic Development Visions

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