Monday, April 12, 2004

Not Bowling Alone

Assessing our stock of social capital, Robert Putnam famously concluded that we are essentially Bowling Alone. He was especially tough on "urban sprawl", blaming it for longer commutes and, therefore greater isolation as more people spend more time alone on the road in their single-occupant vehicles.

Recent research suggests that Putnam was wrong about the sprawl-commuting connection. So many jobs also relocate to the suburbs that many suburbanites actually have jobs nearby.

What about the rest of our interactions? Casual observation reveals that most of us are connected via cel phones and other wireless communications, much more than ever. Look at the recent performance of wireless stock funds if there is any doubt.

But, what about real person-to-person interactions? Are electronic links complements or substitutes for the real thing? The Federal Highway Administration's travel surveys (NPTS and NHTS) for 1995 and 2001 provide some of the answers. Trip rates per person per day (all trip purposes) are up. They are up most significantly for higher-income people -- but there were more of these in 1995 than in 2001 as more people moved into higher brackets.

Of all the categories of trip-making, the non-work trip types were shopping (down very slightly, across the board), "other family and personal" (down some, also across the board), "school and church" (mostly up), "doctor and dentist visits" (mostly up for a mostly older and richer population), vacations (up for most income brackets), "visits to friends and relatives" (down for the low-income groups; up for others). This leaves all "other social and recreational" which were up the most -- for most income groups.

It seems that there is more good news than bad. We may be tethered to our electronics but we also get out more --and do stuff, often with others. It takes all those cel calls to set up all those play dates.