A unified theory of why we hate traffic and why rent in the city is so high.

Let’s get this out of the way: nobody loves traffic, right? We take for granted that when someone talks about traffic, they do so with some disdain.

This morning, I came to think about how that disdain is caused, at its root, by the clash of mobility and immobility. In the case of automobile traffic, this clash is hastened by the car’s promise of self-directed and accelerated mobility – rendered totally worthless with exceeding regularity around 4 every afternoon.

Underlying this presumption is the premise that the value of self-directed accelerated mobility is proportional to the intended travel distance. In short: we care more about how fast we go when we have to travel farther. Where travel distance is thirty miles of flat highway, the value of accelerated mobility is high. Where travel distance is three city blocks or even a mile, other forms of mobility are probably suitable. Shorter travel distances give us more options for mobility.

Which gets me to the rent part: travel distances in cities can be very short. The density of pre-modern urban planning creates short distances between places where people live and where people conduct commerce. Residents of these areas can therefore enjoy a range of mobility options that need not necessarily be self-directed or accelerated – when it takes 5 minutes to bike, 10 minutes to walk, or 10 minutes to take public transit to your destination, the relative advantage of making the trip in 5 minutes by one’s own car evaporates hastily. And we pay more for access to that spectrum.

There is an easy leap to be made next about the equation of time and money (and space). My attachment to cities is grounded in my care of time: my time matters therefore my time in transit matters therefore I choose to live in a place where my time in transit is minimal. And I pay a lot of money for that choice.

However, while distance and mobility don’t mean as much if we have loads of time, this equation doesn’t take into account the issue of physical space.

In cities, one’s choice of residence is a function of time, money, and space. How close can one get to the place where they want to be, how much will it cost, and how much space will they have for themselves? When space needs exceed available funds, distance must seemingly necessarily increase – which increases the value of mobility and makes traffic (as a social phenomenon and personal, emotional reality) suck that much more.

And therein lies the problem: people who need more space create (and experience) traffic in order to afford that space.

I thought one of the better solutions proposed was by Facebook, who (if I recall correctly) offered their employees a $500 monthly credit if they lived within a mile (or two? or what?) of their campus. While its increased employee satisfaction and productivity and ability to recruit based on reduced traffic generates value, I wonder whether this program persists as the company has grown, created artificial demand in the radius around its headquarters, and whether the expenditure now exceeds the benefits. Is $500 still enough to cover the increased demand in that neighborhood? Is it still worth $500 per month per employee to Facebook to make this bubble?

Facebook’s predilection towards walled gardens aside, the other reason this program could make sense is that (if they own the land on which they operate) by creating an urban area around their headquarters they raise the property value of their headquarters past its suburban ceiling. Executed properly, they could grow the area to the point where it could be an urban center that could survive independently. With commuting distances lower and high property values sustained by company stipends, the area could flourish in a way that provides residents with a high range of mobility options and more space. Improperly executed, they risk creating a company town.

Space is also an aggregated measurement, and in order to consider increase one’s personal space without losing mobility, you have to consider not just area – lot size and square footage – but volume. Considering volume when planning cities is a tricky thing because people tend to neither plan for nor consume housing in three dimensions. As I’ve learned, not all 600-square-foot apartments are created equal.

So another solution without a financial imperative is simply a better use of volume in cities. As much as it is an “urban planning” challenge, we should challenge ourselves to better use our personal space. When building homes and offices, this means better designed appliances, hinges, ducts, and other kinds of interior infrastructure. In actual use, this means keeping a couple winter coats instead of a closetful, working in an open-floor office rather than one partitioned with modular furniture.

Does living this way actually reduce traffic? I think it will. It goes up the food chain, in a manner of speaking. The extra inches we take for granted around our homes can add up to miles around cities and neighborhoods. And when that happens, mobility becomes increasingly valuable because it’s a matter of time.

And it doesn’t hurt to try.

Related: I spent Halloween evening watching the DC premiere of Urbanized. It seems that with each succeeding movie in Gary Hustwit’s “design trilogy,” the coherence decreases as scope increases. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t an eminently watchable film: its world-spanning breadth is compelling.

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