Hidden Costs of Commuting

America’s social safety net is woven out of volunteers. A new study from the Corporation for National and Community Service called "Volunteering in America" shows that in places where commuting times are burdensome, volunteerism takes a hit. Metro Atlanta, where I live, is below average in the number of volunteer hours and in the percentage of residents who deliver meals, mentor children, or tutor in after-school programs. The Atlanta commute however, is world-famous (over half an hour on average). Every day Atlantans together drive the distance to the sun and halfway back. These statistics on volunteerism and commuting are related, but not simply for the reasons you assume.

Part of the connection you can easily guess–more time in the car means less free time for everything else, whether that is quality time with family, reading great books, composing music, or volunteering. Everyone has a time budget of 24 hours in day, and excess traffic reduces the time you can spend doing what you like. After fighting traffic for up to two hours, one is little inclined to head back out to sort clothes or cook food at the rescue mission.

What is more worrying is the suggestion that long hours spent commuting works a change on our psyche. While you might think all those solitary hours in the car would make you crave social interaction, in fact the opposite appears to be true. According to the study "driving back and forth to work alone provides few opportunities to engage others and to build positive social network." And when people don’t spend time interacting with others, they begin to lose both the knack and desire for community-mindedness (part of what scientists have described as social capital). I don’t know if that’s true, but I can’t help feeling a little disinclined to "love my neighbor as myself" after spending time on Atlanta’s downtown connector.

[Aside: Excessive time on the Internet, in front of the TV, and with video games may have similar results for basic sociality. ]

The study estimates that for every additional minute of commute time, volunteer rates decline by about a percentage point. That accords well with what Robert Putnam, a leading theorist of social capital, estimated: that every ten minutes of commute time means a ten percent decline in social capital.

If this is true, then building sprawling cities is doubly bad–not only does car-centered development disproportionately hit the poor with pollution, blight, violence, and joblessness (the topic of future posts), it also eats into the capacity of society to demonstrate compassion in the face of those injustices. This consequence is intended by no one, but is guaranteed by our neglect of values that conserve community. 

There’s another hidden message in the study, for Christians who are committed to living counterculturally while stuck in the matrix. As John Perkins reminds us, you have to live close to the people God calls you to love. If your heart is with the urban poor, don’t let traffic block you from ministry. Move in to the neighborhood. There are a lot of advantages to ministering as a neighbor, but one clear positive is that the kid’s bible club, the community dinner, and the after-school program don’t require you to get back on the highway.

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