Jane Brody’s Uninformed Attack on Cars and Suburbia

While at a conference where participants discussed the wannabe social engineers cum urbanists’ war on automobility and housing affordability, Jane Brody’s broadside against Americans’ “dependence on automobiles” and suburban living was published by the New York Times. Brody, unlike her Times colleague Michael Pollan, isn’t a complete and total kook when it comes to agricultural biotechnology, and she is one of the more thoughtful nutrition writers in America. Unfortunately, Brody has fallen for one of the popular but incorrect urban elitist tropes about cars and the suburbs.

Long commutes are killing us! Urban cores are healthier than the suburbs! Low-density living is just fattening us up for self-slaughter!

Scary stuff, just in time for Halloween! But the “evidence” supporting such fear mongering ranges from flimsy to nonexistent.

In her introduction, she unintentionally sets the stage for an interesting contradiction that drives suburb-hating urbanists crazy. “My son used to work in New Jersey, which entailed a hated commute by car that took 50 to 90 minutes each way,” writes Brody. “He quit that job when his sons were born and, working part-time from home, cared for the boys. He now commutes to work in the city by foot and by subway, giving him time to read for pleasure.”

Despite the fact that many two-income American households don’t have the realistic option to simply leave their jobs for childbirth, Brody fails to mention that the New York City metropolitan area has the longest commutes in the nation. Oh, but that’s just for suburban New York metro commuters. City dwellers avoid those lengthy commutes, right? Wrong. New York City residents who can’t afford to live in Manhattan can have extremely long commutes just like their suburban neighbors — and some of the longest commutes in the metro area are those of Brooklyn and Queens residents. See this handy map that WNYC put together with Census data.

This is to be expected. New York City has the lowest auto ownership in the nation and the highest public transit usage (about 40 percent of all transit trips taken in the U.S. are within the New York City metropolitan area). Those who get to work by transit rather than car generally have longer commutes: you need to walk to the transit stop, transfer, etc. That’s why New York City drivers tend to have lower commute times than transit users. If you’re looking for the shortest commutes, you’ll need to move to auto-oriented, low-density places like Manhattan, Kansas, rather than Manhattan, New York, New York.

Brody then cites a couple of recent studies on commuting’s effect on physical and mental health, one of which I previously addressed here — also highlighting research finding that dense urban living and upbringing is associated with an increase in mental disorders and stress. As for one of the other studies, Sam Staley noted that the Swedish researchers found that “[h]ealth indicators consistently deteriorated for public transport commuters as commuting time when up, but not for car commuters. The relationship was concave downward for car commuters where health indicators deteriorated until around 60 minutes (for a daily commute), and then improved for the longest commutes[.]” More transit, it seems, will do nothing to solve these problems.

Much of Brody’s article rehashes the weak claims made in Leigh Gallagher’s poorly researched book, The End of the Suburbs. She repeats these recent observations as important long-term trends: “more young families are electing to live in cities; fewer 17-year-olds are getting driver’s licenses; people are driving fewer miles; and bike sharing is on the rise.” For the first three, most serious researchers attribute these phenomena to the weak economy: young families remain wary of mortgage debt and homeownership after painful deleveraging a few years ago and are likely remaining in their post-college urban rentals longer; driving-age teens and young adults face a weak economy and they (or their parents) are likely unable to afford cars, insurance, etc.; more driving is likely caused by increased economic activity and the economy remains weak; and “bike sharing is on the rise” because, well, government officials have decided to promote and subsidize bike sharing.

Brody’s biggest sin may be ignoring new technologies such as autonomous vehicles and advanced telecommuting. What happens to all the alleged physical and mental health deterioration caused by bumper-to-bumper traffic when passengers will be able to kick up their feet and watch streaming videos or do work during their commutes — or not commute at all? What about all those poor schlubs in New York City, stuck with their long and unhealthy transit commutes? Will we see the Brodys of the world attack wasteful subways and commuter rail the way they complain about personal automobility, as if it’s a cancer on society? Somehow I doubt it.

But even if they wanted to, most Americans simply cannot afford to live in the wealthy urban neighborhoods that Brody sees as critical to our survival. I’ve known a number of New Yorkers who simply cannot believe there are people in the world who have no desire to ever live in New York — and, more astonishingly, people who don’t even enjoy visiting New York City. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being proud of where you come from, but there is simply no reason to presume that others share your tastes and preferences. The fact remains: for a large number of diverse reasons, most Americans prefer to live in lower density, auto-oriented suburbs. Why can’t we just leave it at that?