Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Drive until you qualify

In 1991, my colleagues and I published "The Commuting Paradox: Evidence From The Top Twenty". This was one of a series of papers that considered evidence that, in spite of more people, more cars, more driving and no tolling, aggregate commuting times were remarkably stable.

New location patterns prompted the surburbanization of commuting which became a safety valve. Doomsday was a crock and "gridlock" was "impending". Randall Crane and Daniel Chatman updated our analysis to 1997 from other data.

By way of international comparison, however, American commuters have very little to gripe about.

But gripe they will. This week's New Yorker includes "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again". It cites recent work by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer ("Stress that Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox") that alludes to another commuting paradox, behavioral economists' favorite, that people are not so rational and are making bad choices. This line of analysis is typically pleasing to intellectuals and typically rests on opinion surveys. (And there are other problems, accessed via Newmark's Door.)

The New Yorker piece does have some great lines. "'Drive until you qualify' is a phrase that real-estate agents use to describe a central tenet of the commuting life: you travel away from the workplace until you reach an exit where you can afford to buy a house that meets your standards. The size of the wallet determines that of the mortgage and therefore the length of the commute. Although there are other variables (schools, spouse, status, climate, race, religion, taste ..."