Commuting 'Because They Have To'

Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution explains why, for some, extreme commutes can be worth the agony.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And having heard from the Turners, we want to hear more about exactly what drives other Americans to endure hours-long commutes.

For this, we're joined by Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. Bruce, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. BRUCE KATZ (Vice President and Director, Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution): Well, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You just heard the Turners' story. So I'm wondering, are people who are willing to spend, you know, three, four hours a day commuting, are they doing this because they have to or because they want to?

Mr. KATZ: Well, I think increasingly, it's because they have to. The spatial geography of the American economy is changing quite rapidly. We're seeing our metro areas extend out. We've almost become an exit-ramp economy, with a large portion of the jobs growing further and further away from the central cores.

And what's happening in these new nodes of employment are housing prices are higher in those places that are close to decent jobs. And they tend to push people out and crowd people out further and further outside, even the metropolitan areas. Our…

MARTIN: But what I'm wondering is, are people moving farther and farther out because they want a big house on a big lot and a swimming pool? Or are they moving farther and farther out because that's the only house they can afford?

Mr. KATZ: I think they're driving to qualify, so they can afford a decent starter home or perhaps the, sort of, the second home. They're making these choices because they have to make them. There is not sufficient supply of affordable housing close to places like Tyson's Corner or close to some of the sophisticated work areas like Washington, D.C.

MARTIN: But for people who used to maybe live in the major metropolitan area and are now doing it the other way, moving to a suburb or a far suburb or an excerpt, how much of that do you think is driven by affordability? How much of that do you think is driven by - this is a term we haven't used very much in recent years - but white flight?

Mr. KATZ: Well, I think it relates to racial patterns, and we should talk about that in a second. I think principally, what this is about is affordability. There is a lack of supply of what we would call workforce housing - you know, housing that's affordable to people earning, let's say, between 30, $40,000 and even $75,000 in the major metropolitan areas.

The market is not building that kind of housing. It tends to build housing for people at the low end, and that's highly subsidized housing, or people obviously at the upper end. But it's not basically building housing for people earning moderate or low middle-income wages…

MARTIN: Why not?

Mr. KATZ: …and so these people…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Bruce. Why not?

Mr. KATZ: Well, because, you know, the builders are sure of attracted to make the most profit they can make. I mean, some of the suburban jurisdictions tend to make it more complicated to build this kind of housing because it tends to be most profitable when it's dense, and density is a dirty word in many suburban jurisdictions.

So for builders, the easier path is to build up market. Race does affect this, because if you look at Washington D.C., it's a highly racially and ethnically stratified area. And so for certain families, their choices also tend to get limited on really both sides - or the many sides - of the racial and ethnic divide.

MARTIN: But the argument, I think, that some people would make is this is our choice. If they want to live like that, why is it my business?

Mr. KATZ: I don't think this is about real choice. This is about the limited set of choices that are basically created by policies that are not in synch that are really not producing the broad range of choices that I think middle income consumers, moderate income consumers want. Most people want to live closer to where they work, as well as live close to good schools in communities that function.

We're not producing that broad range of choices from most people. And what the Turners are experienced, I think is the beginning of a very dramatic trend. And it's really going to become harmful, to be frank, if gas prices, you know, continue to stay at the level that they are, or even rise higher. Then we're really affecting the pocketbooks of people in a way that they can't sustain.

MARTIN: If you don't mind my asking, how long does it take you to get to work?

Mr. KATZ: Actually, it only takes me about 15 minutes to get to work.

MARTIN: So you're one of the lucky ones? Because you know my theory on this, the three things people lie about? Sex, money and their commute?

Mr. KATZ: My commute is ridiculously short.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. KATZ: And I almost sort of almost apologized for it…

MARTIN: Can we follow you one day to prove it?

Mr. KATZ: In fact, I will - you could put whatever odometer you want to put on this one. But it's - no, it's 15 minutes. But I'm one of the people who, you know, who has some options as to - about where to live.

MARTIN: All right. That was Bruce Katz. He is vice president and director of Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution here in Washington. He joined us from his office. Thanks, Bruce.

Mr. KATZ: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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