Life in the 'Burbs: Heavy Costs for Families, Climate Millions of Americans have moved to the suburbs over the past 60 years. They gain a bigger house, but until recently, few were aware of the impact those choices had on the environment.
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Life in the 'Burbs: Heavy Costs for Families, Climate

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Life in the 'Burbs: Heavy Costs for Families, Climate

Life in the 'Burbs: Heavy Costs for Families, Climate

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Our series Climate Connections with National Geographic is looking this week at the way American lifestyles affect climate change. Every day, American families make choices about where they live and how much they drive, and those decisions multiplied millions of times can have a big impact on global warming. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren went to one of the nation's most congested cities, that's Atlanta. In the first of our two stories, she introduces us to a family that moved from the city to the suburbs.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: This is Michelle Carvalhos's dream house. It's 3,000 square feet. It has five bedrooms, a two-car garage, and a big yard.

Ms. MICHELLE CARVALHOS: I guess I had this vision of once I had kids, we would move out further because of the schools and the area. So I like it. I mean, there are trade-offs.

SHOGREN: Like the fact that it's only 7:15, but her husband left for work an hour and a half ago to beat the traffic. There's also her long commute and big heating and air conditioning bills. These are trade-offs that millions of Americans have been making for decades to live the American dream. But it comes with heavy costs for families and the global climate. We're upstairs in the Carvalhos's nursery. Michelle is getting her 16-month-old son ready for daycare. His name is Galileu, after his father.

Ms. CARVALHOS: There you go. Now you look happier.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

Ms. CARVALHOS: Put you in your car seat. It's kind of cold, huh?

SHOGREN: The daycare is 10 minutes away. Michelle drops her son off, and then her real commute begins. Depending on traffic, it can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to drive to Emory University, where she works as a cancer prevention researcher. But first, we stop at a gas station.

Ms. CARVALHOS: Gas is $3.05 today, so it's actually on the high side.

SHOGREN: The tank in her Nissan Altima holds 20 gallons, and she fills up once every five days or so. So does her husband. When the Carvalhos lived in the city, they had one car. But when they moved to the suburbs, they needed two. Both get a lot of use. The amount of gasoline they burn is the biggest reason the family's greenhouse gas emissions have more than doubled since they moved. Back on the highway, traffic slows a few times but doesn't stop. It's a good day.

Ms. CARVALHOS: Here we are, going into the parking deck.

SHOGREN: The 24-mile commute took an hour. That's typical here. The average Atlanta resident with a job drives 66 miles every day. In fact, people here drive so much that if you add up every commute and every trip to a store or soccer practice on just one day, you get a number that's larger than the distance between the Earth and the sun. Catherine Ross, a professor of transportation and growth at Georgia Tech, says commutes are so long here because as the area grew, there were no natural barriers to limit sprawl.

Professor CATHERINE ROSS (Transportation and Growth, Georgia Tech): We just took advantage of that and decided, well, I'll just go a little further out for a lot more house, for a bit cheaper price without really worrying about what it meant in terms of getting to and from your job, moving your children around, visiting your family and friends, making those everyday stops that we all have to make.

SHOGREN: Ross says the toll all this takes on the environment is not sustainable.

Ms. ROSS: So we grew because we could, and now we have to change because we have to.

(Soundbite of horn)

SHOGREN: When I meet Michelle Carvalhos after work, she has a couple errands planned. She's leaving on the early side, just before 5 p.m. By the time she gets home, it'll be 7:30. Ironically, only six minutes after leaving her garage, we pass by where she used to live. Just down the road is where she did most of her shopping.

Ms. CARVALHOS: I miss the proximity, but not the place that I lived.

SHOGREN: The Carvalhos didn't even look for houses near the university, because a new house here as big as theirs could be triple the price. And Michelle says buying a house far from her job didn't seem like a problem.

Ms. CARVALHOS: I just was doing what my parents did, and it wasn't such an odd idea to have a long commute somewhere.

SHOGREN: But scientists say with so many people making the same choices, the planet is paying big costs, like shrinking arctic ice and more intense hurricanes, wildfires and droughts. During the slow slog towards the suburbs Michelle admits she doesn't really like her commute.

Ms. CARVALHOS: The mornings are fine. Afternoons are just a little bit more frustrating just because it is much slower. We're going 16 miles an hour right now.

SHOGREN: That's right, 16 miles per hour. The speed limit here is 65. We finally reach her first stop, Target. It took us 40 minutes to go 15 miles. Inside, she goes from one side of the big store to the other, getting things on her list: coffee, Goldfish crackers, socks for herself and the baby. Then she's off to the mall.

Ms. CARVALHOS: I'm going to guess that it's going to take 25 minutes, depending on traffic.

SHOGREN: In fact, it takes 35 minutes.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SHOGREN: At the mall, she buys what she needs and then heads to the food court. Here's another trade-off. Her long commute eats up her cooking time, so she often picks up dinner on the way home. Tonight, it's Little Tokyo.

Ms. CARVALHOS: Here we are at my neighborhood, 40.5 miles.

SHOGREN: Two and a half hours after leaving work, the end is in sight.

Ms. CARVALHOS: Everybody's waiting at the door, and hello.


Ms. CARVALHOS: Want a hug?

(Soundbite of baby)

SHOGREN: The family sits down to eat around the kitchen table. Although moving to a suburban subdivision was second nature for Michelle, it's been hard for Galileu, who grew up in a high-rise apartment in Brazil. He complains about the chores and the yard work and all the stuff he has to buy to maintain the house. And he's shocked by the high energy costs. Their January natural gas bill was almost $300, triple what they paid to heat their last apartment. Their summer electric bills are also three times as high, but Galileu says he can't figure out how to cut their energy costs or reduce their driving.

Mr. CARVALHOS: There's no way that we can use public transportation living in this area. I mean, I wake up at 4:15 already.

SHOGREN: So while the Carvalhos feel the blow their lifestyle delivers to their budget, they're not aware of its impact on global climate change.

Mr. CARVALHOS: I haven't really thought about it, 'cause we get so caught up with the day-to-day activities that we do what we need to do to get through that day.

SHOGREN: Still, when Michelle weighs all her priorities, she's happy with the decision to move to their big, beautiful house.

Ms. CARVALHOS: While somewhere in my priority list being environmentally conscious is on there, but it's not going to be as high as what can I afford, what does my family need.

SHOGREN: Her husband, Galileu, just got a great new job. It pays more, but instead of commuting 40 miles a day, now he'll be driving 70.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

(Sound bite of music)

MONTAGNE: But for some families, moving from the suburbs to the city not only reduces their impact on climate change, it also improves their lives.

Unidentified Woman: You can always just walk down the street and go the movies or go to their favorite store. But where we used to live, you really couldn't do that. You always had to drive somewhere.

MONTAGNE: More about that tomorrow. And you can see how the way we live affects the planet at and in the latest edition of National Geographic Magazine.

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