Thursday, April 5, 2012


According to urban legend, if you put a frog into a pot of hot water, he’ll have the good sense to jump out of it immediately. On the other hand, if you put him in cold water and then gradually turn up the heat, he’ll obligingly stay in the pot until he cooks himself to death.

Whether fact or myth, this observation applies to humans as well, as we stubbornly cling to our routines under ever more stressful circumstances.

For hundreds of thousands of people living in metropolitan areas, daily commute times have gradually crept up from a half hour to an hour, to one-and-a-half hours and beyond.  For those who’ve retreated to the far-flung suburbs, where homes are more affordable, a two-hour drive to work is nothing unusual.  

Even a relatively painless one-hour commute will have you spending a full twenty days of each year--about 480 hours--crawling along in a sea of brake lights and carbon monoxide.  And that doesn’t even include the time you spend in the now all-but-routine weekend traffic jams.

While no one seems thrilled with this situation, neither do we seem much inclined to challenge it.  Despite all the grumbling, these ever-increasing commutes engender a kind of stalwart tolerance.  In other words, though the heat has already risen quite a bit, we’re still sitting in our pot of water, oblivious.

What has put us in this situation?  A booming population is one obvious reason. But our own ideals are just as much to blame. Prior to the real estate bust of a few years back, we Americans had developed a near obsession with owning huge houses.  On average, these recent new homes were about twice as big as the average home of the prewar era, despite a clear trend toward smaller families and a growing awareness of environmental issues.  

What’s more, even in these financially troubled times, many of us still seem willing to make any sacrifice to secure the holy grail of square footage. And since nowadays the only big houses that are remotely affordable are far from the city, that’s where we go to get our fix. An epic commute is just the price we pay for the privelege.

In the face of a purported economic recovery, developers will be only too happy to resume this trend, once again gobbling up acre after acre of open land to make sure we never run out of the big houses we crave. Planning officials, mired as they are in the concept of old-style, low-density subdivisions, will continue to make things even worse by still doggedly insisting on useless “setback” land between houses. 

The Great Recession has, among other things, offered us a chance to think through the things we’ve been doing wrong, including the way we build. It’s given us a chance to break the vicious triangle of forces--buyers, builders, and bureaucrats--that have until now pointed us to a future of unstoppable sprawl and ever-increasing congestion on our roads.

What can any one of us do to change this dead-end paradigm?  To begin with, we should remember that any historic trend gains currency one person at a time--and also dies out by the same mechanism.  It’s not easy to convince a whole society that it’s on the wrong track.  But a society is made of individuals, and it’s not nearly so hard to look inside yourself and ask:  Is this really the lifestyle I bargained for?  Would I have been willing to put up with these daily headaches ten or twenty years ago?  In short, is it just me, or is this pot getting hotter?

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