The problems with long commutes all revolve around home ownership.
People want big houses on big yards. Most can't afford that close to work, which means they make the economic choice to trade the commute time for that "dream".
That's fine but the problem is that government subsidizes that dream to a ridiculous degree. Urban sprawl has a huge cost in infrastructure, largely borne by the taxpayer.
Low-density urban sprawl largely also makes public transport uneconomic (public transport works best in high density cities and countries).
Lastly, home ownership decreases the flexibility of the labour market. People are less able and less inclined to pick up and move to find work opting instead for lower-paid employment or no employment at all.
They also revolve around people who fail to understand trade-offs and opportunity costs. This never became clearer to me than after I read "The Soul of a Commuter" in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_... . I actually just submitted it to HN as a regular article; it seems germane to this discussion, and as far as I can tell no one else has offered a point.
Most interesting to me: the long discussion of the research showing the negative effects of commuting.
There are a couple of places in the US where there is enough population density to make mass transit work. Unfortunately no one wants to spend the money to improve it. Train and bus travel is painfully slow. Commuter rail travel, for example, averages about 30-40 mph, at best. If that doubled, people could commute from "great distances", or simply live 40 miles from a major city and have a 30 minute commute. Is the problem really that hard to solve?
We need to both change the way we think about what "mass transit" is and spend more $$$ advertising it.
I live in a rural area about 40 miles from Minneapolis, the largest city around here, pop. about 400k. Normally it would take me well over an hour to get there during rush hour, but I recently discovered that there is a bus that can do it in 22 minutes if the schedule is to be believed. The buses can drive on the shoulder, and of course, use the HOV lanes to get there faster than we can.
I found this out purely by accident because it's really not well publicized. I had to go to Mpls and didn't want to deal with parking, so I looked into the bus route and was astounded that it could do the trip from bus depot to downtown in 20 minutes. The bus stop itself is about 15 minutes from my house, so I could be downtown in less than 40 minutes. I can't believe Metro Transit isn't screaming this from the rooftops!
Of course, life being what it is I made it to the bus stop late, missed the last bus in and had to deal with the 1.5 hour drive into the city anyway :-(
This is the problem with small cities' public transit systems. Temporal flexibility is limited compared to driving one's self to work. Need to stay late? You'll be staying all night, or your spouse must come pick you up.
Other issues (observed as a lifelong Clevelander):
1. The elapsed time savings of using public transit is often quite negative (compared to a city like NYC where it probably is often more time-efficient to take the train).
2. Parking costs are relatively low, so there's no tax on bringing your car with you to work. And, you almost never pay for parking at home.
3. You can't live easily without a car, so the potential savings of public transit is reduced to less usage of your current vehicle. You still have to own one, pay for insurance, etc.
4. Density is so low that your first/last mile issues may literally be that far.
All of this creates a death spiral for these public transit systems: Ridership is low, so vehicle frequency is low. This creates higher costs of public transit for people who have more money than time (how much could you have earned while waiting for the bus?), so these systems end-up serving only those with more time than money. This creates a stigma around using public transit which further reduces ridership. Add in white flight and the fear that extending public transit to the "nice areas" will allow "those people" to invade, and it's hard to imagine how public transit could ever work.
The RTA is very good for getting downtown or to University Circle (and possible Ohio City). Unfortunately the jobs have all moved to around 271/480. I did the 48->7 reverse commuting from Shaker Sq. to Highland Heights when my car was in the shop last year. Let me tell you, that sucked. Nearly an hour and half vs. 30 min driving. And there's only 1 bus the entire day that took the special route I needed.
I live in Hudson, so public transit will never help me much. I used to live in University Heights, a suburb which grew up after the RTA lines were laid out. Ironically, I have been working in Chicago during the week for the past few months and have been getting by a combination of public transit and taxis. $150/mo parking in the condo complex where I am renting coupled with $20/day-ish downtown parking makes a $8 taxi ride a bargain (not to mention the $2.25 bus fare). It also helps that iGoCars (a non-profit zip car competitor) has stationed a car right outside my building.
I commuted 27 miles (straight line) via commuter rail and it took me 1.5 hours each way. Rent was free (I lived at my parents) but it was tough. I was surprised by how long it took, and by the number of service interruptions that made the trip even longer!
It's false that "no one wants to spend the money to improve it", as proven by the voting for recent ballot initiatives to fund high-speed rail and BART expansions in California, to cite just one example.
A LOT of people would MUCH rather have large amounts of public dollars spent to improve transit than to, for instance, fund wars, bail out bankers, etc.
The HSR is CA was funded in 2008. It looks like the first leg through Fresno might happen in a year or two. China went from no subway to the biggest subway system in the world in 15 years. They have 5000 miles of HSR. We have zero.
If you really want to get people off the highways, mass transit needs to be made more convenient, not the lesser of two undesirable choices.
And just for another comparison: The MVV (Munich Transport and Tariff Association / Muenchner Verkehrsverbund) serves 2.6 million people (Munich and the greater Munich Area). The S-Bahn (commuter trains) lines are 442 km, the subway lines 103 km and the tramway is 75 km. There is also the bus with 457 km on 66 lines in the city.
(I've ignored buses for the outer regions and the option to use trains to reach the city from suburbs).
See the construction plans for a high-speed train from staten island to manhattan (nyc). It should make going from SI -> Manhattan take about 20-30 mintues saving an average commuter about 20-40 minutes per ride. Gets a ton of cars off the road, thus making the other commutes faster, less cost, etc. Commuting in NYC is quite problematic.
it does not matter. well, i don't know NYC. let me talk about west coast. SF is fine for buses/subway. But if i live in SF, and need to go to LA, even if bart install the fastest train there is, it's of no use to me, as i can't even get a taxi in a decent manner in LA. i will have to take my car, or rent one there. or at least commute with some friend.
I would be interested in the history of that. Homeownership seems very American to me, but subsidizes not so much .
And books or links, that you can recommend?
 I'm aware there are many subsidizes in the US, for instance in agriculture. Still, it seems to be less than in Europe. There are subsidizes for homeownership in Germany but more people live in rented accommodation.
The biggest difference between the US and somewhere like Germany is the price of land. While land can be expensive in certain highly desireable places, it is possible to buy habitable land in the US for what is a derisory amount of money to a European - often less than $1,000 per acre. This drives the cost of home ownership down to levels that can be aspired to by many people. There is a lot of homebuilding as a result, which also keeps costs low.
In comparison, buildable land in a European village or small town can be $100,000/acre - not that you can find an acre to buy anyway. Even if you could afford the land, you would then have to find the same amount again to build the house - so it is much cheaper to rent.
It captures some of the US pro-home-ownership arguments lower in the article.
Yeah, there are places in Europe cheaper than Germany, but $700,000/acre does not surprise me. I should have added that construction standards are very different between Europe and the US which also accounts for the low cost of housing. In many (most?) parts of the US houses are made of simple timber frames and hence are simply and quickly erected - I have seen houses (the outer shell obviously) go up in as little as two days. In Europe a lot (most?) of housing is made of brick, a more laborious process.
Think you'd have to look at the term "buildable"... the US doesn't try very hard to prevent urban sprawl with it zoning rules. The EU, in comparison, may restrict zoning and in particular restrict the conversion of agricultural land into housing tracts.
An acre is ridiculously large for building a house on. 1/10th of an acre is what an average Belgian free-standing house is build on these days, in the Netherlands it's even smaller.
I'd jump at any chance to buy an acre of land zoned for residential construction for only 100k, even in the most 'rural' areas here ('rural' being relative, even very rural here is still suburban by US standards).
Yes, interest deduction is a big subsidy, but also roads, cars etc are highly subsidized. I'm on my BB so I can't provide good sources, but if you google subsidies of driving americans etc you will find a lot.
In Europe, they charge very high vehicle and gas tax to make up for the roads and keep people from driving. In the US we allow much less wealthy people to drive. Neither is correct, but we in the US highly subsidize commutes.
IIRC The US Highway system is cash positive. It is true that the US gas-tax is much lower than just about anywhere else. The easiest way to lose the next election in the US is to propose raising the gas-tax.
I don't want a big house with a big yard. I grew up in Manhattan and I'm perfectly happy in an apartment. Yet in San Francisco, despite sky-high rentals, there's a shortage of rental apartment buildings, apparently because the city restricts their construction and height.
And then they wonder why people move out of town as their families grow - SF has one of the lowest proportions of households with small children of any city in the nation.
It doesn't all revolve around home ownership. There are a number of people who make decisions on where to live based on their lifestyle interests. Reed Hastings happens to live in Santa Cruz and was quoted in a chat about making a conscious choice about living in Santa Cruz County and having that separation "line" dividing work and the personal. Many people who live in Santa Cruz and do the commute feel the same (ignoring the fact that there is little to no tech industry here anymore).
Big houses and big yards? I've got a bungalow that is smaller than any house I lived in growing up (probably by a factor of two).
Urban sprawl may have a huge cost in infrastructure, but the lack of planning to put in commute alternatives (like trains) are just as damning. In Germany, there are friends that live 30-40min outside of Munich and happily take the train daily. They don't necessarily want to live in the city. Which goes to your argument of "Low-density urban sprawl largely also makes public transport uneconomic" -- in general, sure, but again infrastructure planning can offset this.
This country, unfortunately, doesn't believe in planning for infrastructure. Trains? Unprofitable boondoggles! (or so some think)
Agreed. I live in a flat in semi-central London and I cycle to work in a little more than half an hour. Life is good, but during weekends it really rubs me that I have at least an hours worth of travelling to do before I can get to some uninterrupted countryside.