Urban vs Suburban

When I say suburbia vs. urban in this article, I am referring to people who live in the suburbs and work in the city. If you live in the suburbs and live a mile from your work, you are halfway to not being a part of the problem. The other half is not living in an oversized house.


If you are living in a suburb and commuting to the city, you probably are being both financially stupid and a bit of a jerk to the environment. Moreover, you are probably short-changing your kids on family time. Most of this article can be read as "Don't live far away from your place of work."

Since most of my readers don't yet have kids or homes, read on to find out why you shouldn't ever leave the city.

For those of you in rural places, this article is really only useful if you want great ways to make fun of suburban folk.

The Financial Cost of Commuting from Suburbia (or Rural)

If your wage is $50,000 a year, living in suburbia costs up to an extra $15,700 extra over 10 years in driving time/expenses per mile you live from work. In other words, if you choose to live 10 miles closer to work, you could afford a house that is $150k more expensive. Moreover, the average suburbanite produces about 40% more emissions than a person living in a part of a city with access to public transportation.

Read the real maths from the original post by MrMoneyMustache.

"But Jason," you lament, "Surely you recognize that if you live in the city, you need to take public transportation, and that also costs time." To which I have to say two things:

1. No I don't. I ride my bicycle everywhere. I'm getting fit and sexy while getting around the city.

2. The only time I don't bicycle is when I have a massive amount of work to do. Then I take the subway and use my commute time to catch up on work. And the entire time I am wishing I was getting exercise on my bike.

"But Jason," you say, "I live in the suburbs and I bicycle to work in the city."

To you, sir, I say, "You are badass and a shining example of someone who cares about their fitness and the health of their fellow man. But if your house in the suburbs is huge, you probably still use more energy than the average city resident."

urban cycling can be safe if you learn how

"But Jason," you say, "bicycling is dangerous! It will shorten my life or cause injury!"

Three things.

1. Take a bike safety class and wear a helmet. I am what is known as "reckless" and have yet to be in a maiming bicycle accident. It's safer than you think.

2. If you live in a city, you live just a few miles from work and will bike 1/10th the amount a commuter will drive. Based on the fact that per mile, a bicycle is 4x-10x as dangerous as being in a car, at worst your safety is break-even on a bicycle commute, and at best is 2.5x safer.

3. As MrMoneyMustache points out, bicycling makes you healthier to the point that even when accounting for the chance of dying younger from an accident, bicycling increases your life expectancy. Whereas being in a car only decreases your life expectancy while making you fatter and uglier.

One last thing on bikes: In a prior post, I mentioned that if you are in shape, biking is the fastest way to get around in a city. You will save time if you live in a city and bicycle.

Suburbia Home Energy Use

In his paper on construction trends and CO2 per capita, Edward Glaeser shows that some cities have massively higher CO2 emissions per capita than others. This is primarily because in some cities, people live in houses and apartments that are far bigger than their needs. These houses have heating and cooling needs. Bigger houses not only have more volume to heat and cool, they also have more places they leak from. So they take a lot more energy to cool. This is why people who live in shoebox sized apartments in NYC emit only the equivalent of only 8 tons of CO2 per year in their lifestyle, and Houston residents emit 30. Also cause AC is very energy intensive. That's for a future post though.

The Health Cost of Commuting from Suburbia

Sitting on the highway in slow-moving traffic and breathing in exhaust fumes is not good for you. MIT says that 53,000 people die per year from the emissions of autos. So maybe stop sitting in traffic and breathing all that in, eh?

Many people get stressed and upset sitting in traffic. This is obviously not good for you.

I Don't Care About This, I Moved Out to Suburbs So My Family Would Have a Better Life

Well aren't you the martyr? Sacrificing your time, health, and happiness for your kids. Very kind of you.

That 1-2 hour commute you are doing would take 30 minutes if you lived close to work. Spending an extra 1 or 2 hours with your kid every day will be much better for them than putting them in a supposedly better school. Unless, that is, you are convinced that you are a truly shitty parent and that you damage them every time you interact with them.

Summing It Up

Living near the place you work and biking or public commuting there will save you time, money, promote your health, remove a need for auto repair. Most importantly, it'll give you more time with your kids. That'll mean more than a marginally better school system or a yard for them to play alone in.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

6 thoughts on “Urban vs Suburban

  1. As far as the relative safety of biking and driving, it's also worth considering your impact on other people's safety. Biking can endanger only the cyclist, whereas driving makes everyone else on the road less safe (especially the bicyclists).

    • I tend to agree that reckless cyclists can cause problems, as reckless drivers can. Given that a reckless cyclist increases their risk of injury, I suggest that all cyclists take a safety course to prevent making the road a more dangerous place for themselves or others. Hesitancy and awareness in normal situations and otherwise, not running red lights, etc., is key to surviving a cycling commute long enough to reap the benefits of better health.

  2. 1. Cyclists that don't follow traffic laws should be given tickets.

    2. Cars should be banned in many urban areas.

    3. Will I be sexier if I walk or if I bike? I currently walk and feel moderately sexy.

    4. Sometimes I drive out of the city into suburbia. I just wanted to let you know.

    5. I enjoyed your article. Thanks for writing.

    • 1. Several of my friends have received tickets for running red lights. I think it's funny.

      2. Argentina does this very effectively, making several cities safer, less polluted, and making public transportation mad fast http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_car-free_places

      3. If you are going the same distance, walking will burn more calories. If you are going for the same amount of time, biking will burn more calories.

      4. I rarely feel the need to go to Suburbia.

  3. The info graphic is misleading. no one is paying you to commute, therefore there is no huge gain in income to cover the hugenormous gap in real estate costs between the city and the suburbs. if i take the train from fall river or providence, i can at max afford about 2500-3000 sqft of recent construction, modular, green home (though i plan to find/construct something more along the lines of 1200-1500sq ft.). In boston, i can afford about 450 sqft. for the two of us. in brooklyn, i could afford about 800 sq ft. and that included a 1.5 hour express bus commute into midtown. I do need to have room for more than a bed and a toilet as an adult, otherwise, what's the point of staying out of prison besides that whole rape thing? This cat is pushing a watermelon out of a lake, your economics argument is invalid (not the health/environment one though). http://media.moronail.net/images/stories/dg_pictures/0812/822.jpg

    • Hey Mike. Good point. If someone is an hourly wage worker, this makes less sense, because you can't do hourly work on a bus/train and get paid for it. But what you can do is pretty much anything else. Read a book on how to program computers, etc., to improve oneself.

      Not being concerned with time you take out of your life to get to work is the exact same thing as saying your time doesn't matter, so someone else may as well waste it. Our time is worth something. The easiest proxy is the wage we get paid. When a person says they will take $6250 extra dollars a day if it means they spend 250 hours per year without their kid (that is 1 hour extra per day in commuting for 250 days of working), they are saying that their time is worth $25 an hour.

      Also, real-estate near Spanish Harlem and also near Columbia is more reasonable than most of Brooklyn, and much closer to Midtown. Moreover, inside cities it is more cost-effective per foot to rent rather than buy. Your mortgage out in Fall River, plus the amount you spend in gas, plus the time cost of money, can net you a pretty fucking sweet rental in the heart of Boston, or a much bigger place in Allston, Watertown, Medford, etc. Same goes for the Columbia area of NYC, where the A and 23 express trains will get you to midtown in a matter of minutes.

      In general, a place is only worth buying if the cost of it is less than 100x the monthly rent in an equivalent place and location. It turns out that in most cities, this is not the case.

      If a person is desperate to own a place, the suburbs may be the only option. But it also turns out that home ownership is actually a really shitty investment unless you get a good place, at a good price, that doesn't need repairs, and is in a neighborhood that will always go up in price much faster than inflation. Actually, I will let Jim Collins from NH explain it, cause it does it hilariously.

      So cat on a watermelon or not, there are more options than the few you listed, and many will give you more time with your family and less time in traffic. They will almost certainly be a bit or good amount smaller, but it could net out to be positive in terms of happiness with more free time (and opportunities to send your kid to magnet schools in the area). And that is before considering the environmental and health benefits of living in-city.

      Speaking of prison, have you checked out Orange is the New Black on Netflix? The first episode is slow, but it gets really good.

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