It's time to rethink our commutes

Here are two new metrics to help rethink how commuting factors into livability

By Matt Carmichael on July 10, 2015 at 7:01 am CDT

How long is your commute?

That’s a question you can probably answer pretty quickly. Sure, there might be variables to consider. Maybe there’s less traffic in summer or the drive is slower on Thursdays. Maybe if you hit that connecting subway just right you can shave a few key minutes. Regardless, you know more or less how long it takes you to get to work each day and that’s a helpful unit of measurement as you plan your week. It's probably something you thought about as you chose where to live.

Now I want you to think of a different unit of measurement. What is the fastest your commute could possibly be. What if there’s no traffic, or no wait time for the bus, or if you drove instead of taking the train or if you biked instead of driving? In other words, in a best-case scenario how quickly could you get from your door to your desk.

Does that change anything?

For some, no or at least not dramatically. In the exurbs or outer suburbs you might be able to shave some time, but you’re still 20 or 30 or 40 miles from downtown and nothing's going to shorten that except a helicopter. For the inner-ring suburbs it can be a dramatic difference. If your 8-mile commute usually takes 50 minutes during rush hour, but it can be done in just 12 minutes that’s something to consider.

As I was choosing a place to relocate, this factored into my decision and I would argue that it’s an important metric albeit one that hasn’t been named before. For the sake of brevity let’s call it the Minimum Attainable Transit Time, aka the MATT. Rather than choosing a place where the typically commute and the MATT were nearly identical we chose a place where the typical commute by rail and by car was similar but the MATT was dramatically lower. Why?

Because cities are great places, even for people who live in the suburbs. If we want to go downtown on a weekend, or in the evening or even any time that isn’t peak rush hour, we can do so easily from our perch just outside the city. If we lived further out, or if we lived somewhere with only one options (driving) to get downtown that would make going into the city just as much of a production on the weekend than on the weekday. That, in turn, would mean we took less advantage of the city and all it has to offer. That in turn would make our place less livable than it should be given its relative proximity to a major city.

That in turn brings us to our next unit of consideration when choosing a place. The Most Livable Commute (the MLC). This refers to the idea that a great place to live should give you options for getting from point A to point B. There will be trade-offs. An 8-mile commute in city traffic can easily be 45 minutes. That’s about the same time it takes to bike. A shorter commute is quite likely faster by bike. The bus or train can often mean time to decompress, think, read, Facebook, people-watch or catch up on podcasts. Driving is often faster than public transportation but typically costs much more. So again, there are trade-offs in terms of time, money, convenience and effort. The point is to find a place that offers options and then choose which one works best for you – which one makes your life in your place the most livable. One key thing about the MLC is that it can vary day-to-day, which is awesome. Options are great.

Now we have two different ways to consider how our commute plays into our livability and two different metrics to measure it by, one quantitative (MATT) and one qualitative (MLC).

These factors aren’t only applicable to suburban -> city commutes. They work in reverse commute situations and even commutes within cities or within or between suburbs.

Does thinking in that framework change anything for you? Personally I think it makes a good case for some of our nation’s under-valued inner-ring suburbs – places that are potentially high MATT-differentials and multiple options for the MLC. Have you found that in your place you wish you’d considered the full transit picture before you settled down?

Let us know in the comments.

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