Commuting, Chronic Stress, and Costs That Are Harder to See
By Art Carden
This morning, I tweeted the following:
Spend extra $ to cut your commute. I read (in @rdobelli‘s book?) that we underestimate commuting costs.
— Art Carden (@artcarden) May 22, 2013
We’ve tried to model it. When we lived in Memphis, we lived in what a colleague called “Midtown East,” near the intersection of Walnut Grove and Highland. I once timed my commute at 8 minutes from leaving my driveway to parking my car at Rhodes. We could walk to the grocery store, Starbucks, a bunch of restaurants, the main public library, and other places. It was great.
We don’t have that luxury where we are now because Samford is in the suburbs (it has a Birmingham address but is actually in Homewood), but I do have a similarly short commute. We’re also very close to Walmart, Publix, and a bunch of other places we frequent. We can also walk to the playground and park near our house. I miss being able to walk to Starbucks, but it’s still pretty nice.
So what of the obvious retort–“that’s great, but most people can’t afford it”? My suspicion is that this is an example in which behavioral economics–or just Frederic Bastiat–has the most to contribute. We tend to notice what is right in front of us while ignoring what is harder to see. We emphasize the present and heavily discount the future. In a world where we have all sorts of cognitive biases, it’s easy to believe people probably under-estimate the costs of commuting and, therefore, under-estimate the value of living close to where they need to be. I’ve read recently–I believe in Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly, or in his essay “Avoid News”–that we tend to under-estimate the costs of chronic stress to our health and, ultimately, to our bank accounts. That “great bargain” on the house with the soul-crushing 40-minute commute may not be such a great deal when you factor in the increased probability of a future that involves expensive heart medication.
Is there a policy upshot? It seems like it would be easy to say “and therefore, we should quit subsidizing suburban sprawl and long commutes, either implicitly or explicitly.” I definitely agree, but maybe not on these grounds. Density creates its own congestion problems and stressors For example, living close enough to walk to Starbucks was awesome. Multiple distant sirens daily was not. I’m not sure what the “socially rational” pattern would be, but holding others’ actions and current policies constant, my sense is that the blindfolds of our cognitive biases are causing a lot of people to step over hundred-dollar bills.
So two questions for you, dear readers:
First, is there a policy upshot that I’m overlooking in my haste?
Second, what are other examples of situations in which we could be meaningfully “less wrong” if we worked at it?
Also, I owe some of you responses to previous posts. I haven’t forgotten; I promise!