Time, space, and urbanity

There has been a fair bit of press this week discussing a report from the Urban Land Institute called Beltway Burden: The Combined Cost of Housing and Transportation in the Greater Washington, DC Metropolitan Area.  This is an interesting and well-researched look at balancing our cost of living and quality of life.  As you might guess, if you have a long commute, you pay less for housing and more for transportation.  If you have a short commute, it’s the other way around.

Any analysis like this, however, is all about where you “draw the box” and this report leaves a lot of things out of the equation.  Yes, it costs substantially more on average in both dollars and pollution to live in Loudoun County than the District, but these are substantially different lifestyles.  I was disappointed that the many things that are traded off in the housing decision are mentioned only anecdotally. So many factors are impossible to quantify– the health benefits of walking more and driving less, the everyday delights of cultural diversity, or the proximity of friends and family. It would be great to have a tool that could put a value on things like convenience to amenities, square footage, social life, schools, green space, beauty, noise, and many other parts of the work/life balance, and could help us understand all factors in order to find a better societal and personal balance. 

The authors seem to believe that people buy houses on price alone, and if only they would count the time, cost, and hassle of commuting, they would buy a house closer to the city center.  As we all know, it’s not that simple.  While it is true that traffic is bad across the metropolitan area (and it’s only going to get worse), middle class folks who want a big house and a suburban lifestyle and are going to put up with it.   The ULI thankfully stops short of telling people they shouldn’t want whatever American dream that’s in their heads. 

To the good, the ULI very sensibly recommends improving mass transit, building affordable in-fill housing, and increasing telecommuting.  It’s my opinion, though, that these stop well short of addressing the issues.  They don’t mention the need for better soundproofing technologies for dense housing, for public parking throughout the city, for innovative designs in small houses, for better designs in shared green space, and a hundred other things that could tip the balance for a lot of people. 

I choose to live in the densest neighborhood in DC for a lot of reasons; energy efficiency is only one of them.  And I’m always curious why people choose to live where they do– I’d love to hear your reasons for choosing your home, your neighborhood, and your city.

2 Comments so far

  1. ajw93 on February 11th, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    I love it! It’s always hard to tally up the differences. I’ve lived in the metro-friendly Orange Corridor of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, and Alexandria over the past fifteen years. I thought living in the outer burbs was perfectly fine — it was just a totally different mindset. For me, that included not driving myself to work but finding a good commuting strategy, and thus many of the issues went away.

    Now, however, I live in the only mid-rise apartment building in my neighborhood, which is mostly filled with cottage-size SFHs and garden apartments. We’ve got a nice little main street with locally-owned shops and restaurants and I thoroughly enjoy its walk-and bike-ability. However….my kingdom for a Potomac Yard infill Metro station!

    Thanks for sharing! (And giving me an excuse…)

  2. themegalomaniac on February 13th, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    Like the author, I also live in 20009; I just recently relocated there from Fairfax County. I concur that many fail to see the value in city living. Case in point, it is more difficult to park but once I do, I’m more apt to use the metro or my legs to get around. Where in the suburbs it took 15 to 20 minutes to get to the grocery store or gym, it takes 5 minutes to do so in the city thus saving time and gas.

    I’m glad this report confirms what anyone who has driven on 66 or the beltway already knew; "most workers in the region commute by car."

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