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Why are Americans spending $1000 a month to sit in traffic?

Posting in Cities

Cars make us obese, depressed and divorced, so why don't we realize that they often cost even more than moving to a walkable neighborhood?

According to AAA, the average car commuter spends $715 a month for the privilege of commuting in a vehicle which, according to numerous studies, ruins your marriage, measurably increase stress levels and rates of depression, encourages heart and lung disease via air pollution and is a contributing factor for obesity.

That figure doesn't include the lost time and productivity our commutes cost us, nor does it factor in the health consequences, so let's say conservatively that spread over a lifetime, those amount to a little over an extra couple thousand a year, or enough to bring our total up to a round figure like $1000 a month. (Studies of the productivity costs of congestion alone put it at around $1000 a year.)

On top of all that, we tell pollsters that we hate our car commutes and that they interfere with our lives. So why do we persist?

I think the answer is simple: We're so conditioned to think that car ownership is normal and mandatory that most of us don't even consider the alternative. We don't even get to the point that we consider where we could live on an extra $1000 a month (and that's just the cost of a single car!) All of us except the youths, of course, who are poorer and more technology-obsessed than ever, leading to a profound decline in the rate at which they obtain driver's licenses, reports Lisa Hymas at Grist.

There are also, of course, massive systemic issues with the way our cities are built, and this can't be discounted. Even in the face of mounting evidence that oil is only going to become more expensive and our densest urban areas are as congested as we can tolerate, local governments continue to push for more sprawl.

Fortunately, all of us can vote with our wallets, and local governments are starting to wake up to that reality. In Washington, DC, the Office of Planning is paying residents up to $12,000 to more or less bribe people to move closer to work. Then there's the larger trend toward telecommuting and the fact that bike commuting in already-dense cities like New York has doubled in just the past four years.

Meanwhile, websites like WalkScore and PadMapper help you find a home that doesn't require a car. This is all well and good for the young and unattached, but the larger trend here -- families moving back to the cities they abandoned in the 60's -- will mean everything from revitalizing downtowns to putting effort into school systems that were largely abandoned by the wealthy and well-educated.

Photo: SmokingPermitted

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure