Robert Putnam on Commuting

Putnam likes to imagine that there is a triangle, its points comprising where you sleep, where you work, and where you shop. In a canonical English village, or in a university town, the sides of that triangle are very short: a five-minute walk from one point to the next. In many American cities, you can spend an hour or two travelling each side. “You live in Pasadena, work in North Hollywood, shop in the Valley,” Putnam said. “Where is your community?” The smaller the triangle, the happier the human, as long as there is social interaction to be had. In that kind of life, you have a small refrigerator, because you can get to the store quickly and often. By this logic, the bigger the refrigerator, the lonelier the soul.

Putnam’s favorite city is Bologna, in Italy, which has a population of three hundred and fifty thousand; it’s just small enough to retain village-like characteristics. “It would be interesting to swap the citizens of Bologna with the population of New Jersey,” Putnam said. “Do the Bolognese become disconnected and grouchy? Is there a sudden explosion of malls in Bologna? How much of the way we live is forced on us? How much is our choice?”

The New Yorker has this excellent rumination on traveling to work, and it reminds me of the various strategies we adopt to shrink our ‘triangles.’ My father was a commuter; he spent his early adulthood listening to motivational speakers and working late to avoid rush hour. Antoinette’s parents chose a small town in upstate New York: their commutes were short, and her mother can walk to the school where she works.

Antoinette and I have taken the metropolitan approach thus far: we live in cities, and rent less space. Early in life, this was simply an economic necessity: we went where the jobs were. Now, it’s become a habit; most of the time the prospect of a fifteen minute drive is enough to make the trip unnecessary. Antoinette’s environmental commitments will likely never allow us to live anywhere that didn’t have public transportation again.

But Putnam, of Bowling Alone fame, adds the above caveat about social isolation. Two hours in the car every day has a greater impact on your habits and outlook than going to church on Sunday, joining a political cause, or doing volunteer work, because it shrinks the time you’ll have to do those other things. It’s our daily habits that make us who we are, even more than our hopes and dreams, our faith or our compassion. The way we spend our time molds our fantasies, changes our convictions, and attenuates our capacity to relate to each other. I think he’s right even as I’ve found cities to be rather isolating. Cities can certainly be less satisfying for the working poor, the ones who most need the community interaction and social capital of which the commute deprives them, even as they provide wonderful opportunities for the upper middle class to cavort and play in their comfortable two bedroom apartments steps from the Opera, the gym, and a five-star restaurant. In Manhattan I spent two hours in the subway every day, and I often went farther if I wanted to stop somewhere on the way home. If I ever returned to New York City I’d make more money, take more cabs, and live in a broom closet on Central Park West. That, apparently, is the key to happiness.

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