Long Commutes Are No Cure For Expensive Houses

Local news commentator Chuck Thies wants people to stop all this bellyaching about affordable housing since folks priced out of living in DC can just find a cheaper place to live out in the suburbs rather than us wasting public subsidies on the matter. Lydia DePillis eloquently explains, the question of housing affordability in a major coastal city is hardly a pure question of subsidies. Indeed, one could easily write a short book about how incumbent homeowners in a place like DC have acted to zone out poor people, young people, renters, and just population growth in general.

But the “move to the suburbs” point raises a whole set of other issues. That includes the fact that the city’s most convenient suburbs are extremely expensive too—often more so than many urban neighborhoods—and feature even more restrictive rules about who can live there.

As you go further and further away the land and the houses get cheaper. A lot of your savings end up clawed back in gasoline prices, but even if fuel were free I think this is an inadequate response. Real costs to individuals, families, and societies should be measured in terms of real resources not money. And time is one of the scarcest and most precious resources we have. We have a finite supply of time per day, and no real prospect for increasing the amount of time that exists in a given day. That means inventions that help give us extra time are extremey valuable. This, indeed, is a key reason why the car was a big deal as a technology and why we find it to be so widely used. But the elevator is also a useful time-saving technology! Indeed, these are complementary technologies. An adequately dense urban core creates a reasonably sized suburban geography whose inhabitants can move themselves rapidly into the center.