Miles To Go Before I Sleep!

July 24, 2006, 7am PDT | Sriram Khe
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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". www.townhall.com.

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