EYE ON THE PIE: Indiana: the land of convenience

May 21, 2007

What advantage does Indiana have over other places? Living here gives you more time for living. Put differently, Hoosiers drive fewer minutes each way each day to and from work compared to many people living in other parts of the nation.

The May 7 issue of U.S. News and World Report lamented the stress placed on Americans by gridlock. It discussed the "war on traffic" and suffocating congestion. With hope, the authors pointed to new transit systems and trafficmanagement techniques as potential means to avoid day-long traffic jams.

Not one Indiana county was in the list of 50 worst counties in the nation. The measure used was median one-way travel time to work in 2005 from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Topping the list was Richmond County, N.Y., aka Staten Island, at 42.0 minutes. This makes sense, because many commuters there travel by ferry to Manhattan or plunge by car into the morass of northeastern New Jersey traffic. At the bottom of the list were Kane County, Ill., and Morris County, N.J., at 28.6 minutes.

Indiana's worst county (in terms of one-way commuting time) was Lake, with an average of 26.3 minutes, followed by Porter at 25.4 minutes. There in the northwest corner of the state, nearly onequarter of Lake's labor force works in metropolitan Chicago, where six of the 50 worst-commuting counties in the nation are concentrated. If northwest Indiana had more jobs with pay comparable to those in Chicagoland, Lake and Porter residents could have shorter commutes.

Not all commutes of equal length are equally bad. A 20-minute commute in stop-andgo traffic might cause more stress and more pollution than a 20-minute ride along a pleasant boulevard with the traffic lights perfectly coordinated.

However, commuting is not the cause of urban problems. It is the consequence of public and private choices that have gone astray.

Years ago, we chose to separate places of work from places of residence. That was for good reason: We didn't want to live next to dirty factories. We did not want our children to live in crowded cities with poor sewerage and many other dangers to their health and safety. At the same time, we were (and are) too cheap to invest in good public transit systems. We chose to use existing farm roads as we built out into the countryside. Then we complained about bad roads.

Today, jobs are not focused in factories, yet the majority of the jobs remain in the cities. Our wealthier population, seeking elbow room, is out in suburbia. The result is that Marion County residents commute, on average, 21.5 minutes each way. Their suburban neighbors have longer commutes (as measured by time): Hendricks, 24.7; Hamilton, 23.9; and Johnson, 23.

What do these differences mean? The typical Hendricks County commuter spends 27 hours longer per year in traffic than does the average Marion County resident. On a daily basis, that's nearly seven minutes, enough time to give your children extra encouragement, your spouse extra hugs, or to read a good column like this one.

Differences of only a minute in each direction are easy to find among Indiana counties. One minute in each direction for 250 working days yields more than eight hours in a year.

Why have Indiana cities and towns become less convenient places to live over the past few decades? They, like cities across America, have not made either the land-use decisions that would reduce commuting or sufficient infrastructure investments to reduce congestion. If we want to lay claim to being a state of convenience, we'll have to make wiser choices soon.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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