Strange Experiment in Freeway Living

THE alarm clock rings. It's dark. Dripping from the shower, Mom slaps sandwiches together. She roars off with Mikey to a day-care center 10 or 15 miles away, then drives 18 miles in the opposite direction to work.Dad jams Lenny and Missy into the Volvo and heads for the magnet school 12 miles south, where Missy spends her days. He drops Lenny at the school bus stop; Lenny will ride the bus 45 minutes to another magnet school. Then Dad drives to another county, where he puts in a 12-hour day. For years, the members of this family have been scattered like circling planets that periodically cross paths, then start the same whirling all over again. This three-decade experiment in trans-regional living might be driving us crazy. At best it's an inefficient way to structure our lives. Such a lifestyle doesn't leave much time to get to know our neighbors or our children's teachers, or to feel any sense of attachment to a place. Social scientists and urban experts once showed some interest in the implications of workers commuting long distance. But the interest has faded. Meanwhile, Dad commuting long distance has turned into Dad, Mom, Mikey, Lenny, and Missy commuting long distances, all leading fragmented lives. What are the effects of this strange explosion, this hurtling outward that families go through every weekday and even on weekends? (Lenny and Missy no longer go to school with the neighborhood kids - possibly don't even know them.) Is the trans-regional lifestyle dangerous to our mental and physical health? Who are healthier - people who live the trans-regional lifestyle, or those who live a more localized existence, working and socializing close to home? I recently called the American Planning Association's research department. The researcher couldn't find any useful references to studies on the issue. Nor could William Fulton, editor of California Planning and Development Report. "That's not the kind of thing planners think about," said Mr. Fulton. "But it's astonishing all the things planners don't think about." We study how, say, ambient smoke affects our lungs; we can turn to these studies to help make decisions about smoke in the workplace. City planners who route sewage think about health questions - surely they would think about how trans-regional living affects health. Maybe insurance companies ask this kind of question, but the people who plan cities apparently don't. If trans-regional living is harming us, we ought to know. "I haven't seen any studies on that," says Bob Dunphy, senior researcher at the Urban Land Institute, an expert on commuting patterns. "In fact, a recent study done for the US Department of Transportation shows that commuting distances have substantially increased - about 25 percent - over the past seven years." O, if people are voting with their feet, they're voting for trans-regional living. "People are always willing to trade a longer commute for a perceived improvement in their quality of life," says Fulton. "People feel they have to make these choices for their children, but I'd like to know what the impact is of two generations of kids going everywhere via carpool, being totally dependent on adults." How does trans-regional living affect our sense of the public space, democracy, live theater, or neighborhood weenie roasts? Fulton figures that about a third of workers in, say, Moreno Valley, the sprawling bedroom community west of Riverside, Calif., are commuting long distances. He's talking very long distances - 50 or 60 or 70 miles to jobs in Los Angeles or Orange County. "These people all get up at 4:30 a.m. and pile onto Interstate 60 or Highway 91 in the dark - the trick is to hit this critical interchange before 5 a.m., and it's not uncommon for these people to leave so early to get to Orange County by 6 a.m. that they sleep in the back of a truck or van or even a car for an hour in the parking lot once they get there." It would seem that most people live the trans-regional lifestyle because they feel they have no choice. But Fulton believes this way of living is actually based on choosing choice over convenience. "For example, you drive 15 miles to take your kid to day care rather than [taking him to] one in your neighborhood because you choose the better day care." Well, maybe. But do we really have a choice when good day care is so hard to find? Or when the school systems are timed to fit the needs of bus companies, not parents? Or when cities are designed for auto, not human, habitation? Maybe the real problem is that the right questions aren't being asked - by the planners or by the rest of us.

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