The collective American consciousness would say that aspiration is a powerful force and one that should be encouraged. I happen to agree. The modus operandi of America is built on the idea that anyone has the opportunity to aspire to their goals, dreams, or pursuit of happiness. The notion that our goals are achievable pushes us to be the innovating nation that we are. A common American aspiration is one of luxury—the hope that hard work raises one beyond attaining the necessities to the point of kicking back a little bit.
The stalwart (albeit tired) American Dream once included the image of a single family home, a green front lawn (why do we need those again?) complete with smiling kiddies, two cars and a dog. Today the imagery has evolved somewhat into something more like a 3-car garage, wine cellar, detached pool house and tastefully up-lit landscaping. The results of our cultural fixation on this particular vintage of lux paint themselves across middle America in the form of sprawl.
Our definition of luxury could use a broader scope.
For three of the last seven years, I have been fortunate enough to have my job sit four short blocks away from my apartment building—about a 5-minute walk without a stop for an orange juice or a muffin. This is a luxury worth paying for. I have come to hold the ability to walk to work as one of the most satisfying components of a daily routine and I would not trade it for all of the hot tubs or dining room table sets in the world. The idea of pursuing luxuries in life is not our road block to sustainability (definition), but not all of our luxuries bare the same lifecycle repercussions. Walking to work is certainly not a necessity. Not all of the pleasures we strive to attain have the same correlation between monetary cost and their effects on the biosphere.
What Are We Really Paying For?
When new prospective buyers are eyeing a comfy McMansion out in “____ville” instead of something closer to their place of employment, what is the draw? Common answers could be privacy, school systems and access to strip malls, but there are a series of other fringe benefits to living out on the suburban periphery. With their purchase, they get less efficient infrastructure by paying for more miles of services to serve fewer people and it will probably cost more per capita to repair and maintain over time. They enjoy a higher average energy usage in their home as well. Not only do detached average single-family homes use 100% more (yes, double) energy than a home in multi-family buildings of 5 or more units (according to the Department of Energy), but they also make up 73.9% of residential usage in the country.
They are also paying for a commute. According to the U.S. Census, over 1.7 million Americans fall into the category of “extreme commuters,” a title earned by partaking in a daily trips of more than 90 minutes each way to work. When the range is opened to at least an hour spent commuting the number jumps to 10.8 million, or about 8% of full time workers. You are also much more likely to get injured driving rather than walking. Driving is the most dangerous form of transportation in the U.S. by far with 32,367 highway deaths in 2011 according to the National Transportation Safety Board. For reference, marine transport is a distant second with 758 deaths.
Sure the extra closet made especially for holding golf bags is a nice touch (and it goes well with the putting green in the back yard), but there are other nice things as well; like time. That extra 60-120 minutes every day can be time spent with spouses, or children, or video games, or (heaven forbid) even more sleep! Not to mention that skipping all of that driving probably saves around 328 gallons of gas (with the resulting $1200 it currently costs) and its 2.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. SLATE had a great article a while ago about a Swedish study that targeted the negative effects of long commutes. The article is worth a read, but the short list of symptoms includes obesity, neck pain, loneliness, stress divorce and insomnia.
A New Image of Luxury
Despite all that, walking to work is still a relatively untapped market in the U.S. with only about 4% of the population making a habit of it. The gold star of the nation actually goes to Ithica, New York, boasting 15.1% of its work force walking to work as of 2009.
Having more Americans wanting to walk to work could spur a cultural shift with rippling effects across our development pattern. In their current likeness, suburban areas are not very conducive to walking to work. Part of that is due to how and where we build homes, but the other half is how and where we build our offices. Trading a sprawling office park sited next to an obscure highway exit for a consolidated building in the center of a pedestrian-oriented town turns the status quo on its head for most of America.
Not only can workers pressure a cultural change by focusing on finding a home near work, but companies can meet them halfway by siting offices in proximity to living opportunities. The combined result will be less energy used, less resources squandered, less traffic and a healthier workforce. If demand for walking to work rose, more of our infrastructure could be geared towards alternative transit and away from acreage for cars.
Granted, the local density required to make walking to work feasible for more people most likely means a rise in property value, meaning that money buys fewer square feet, but that might be the kind of amenity that is worth paying for. Maybe trading two extra bedrooms for less time behind the wheel is a pretty good deal? The previous generation’s proclamation of “Someday I want to live in a house like that with a car like that,” could shift to a growing goal of: “Someday, I want to be able to live five blocks away from work.” Not all luxuries need to contribute to pandemic consumption. In some cases, the reverse is even true.
Image Credit: governing.com