Commuting is a normal part of everyday life. It’s baked into our understanding of the city: there’s rush hour traffic in the morning and in the evening as everyone prepares to drive out of town back home. In New York City, the city I commuted to every day for four long years, we commuters doubled the population of Manhattan every single day. I was always excited to partake in the city’s diverse culture, even if it was for just a few hours each day. Little did I know that I and the millions of other commuters who invade America’s cities are in fact killing this very culture.
Commuting began in earnest after WW2, as millions of white veterans secured left American cities for newly minted suburbs, subsidized by generous government loans. These communities were explicitly shaped along racial lines. In When Affirmative Action Was White, Ira Katznelson reported that of 67,000 mortgages in New Jersey and New York backed by the bill, fewer than 100 were for people of color. This migration is often given the moniker of white flight, but that only tells half of the story: the shift to commuting was a fight against cities and their populations.
Since 1950, American cities have been transformed and gutted beyond recognition. A look around downtown reveals these cities are marked more by pavement than people. First, highways snaked in and strangled communities, and what was once community space was bulldozed into parking. The expansion of commuter suburbs and urban car infrastructure took a large toll on America’s cities. Chicago’s population fell by nearly a million, Philadelphia by half a million. Both Detroit and Baltimore’s population have been effectively cut in half, and even worse befell Cincinnati, St. Louis and many others. The notion that America’s cities have died or somehow fallen from greatness is certainly not an uncommon one. Of course, critics of American cities usually point to all the wrong reasons—immigration or crime—but their core conclusion at least glimpses at truth. Throughout these cities, there is little overlap between the centers of culture and of commuting. It is not a coincidence that the most desired, most visited neighborhoods in any given city are those pre-car communities that escaped demolition. These used to simply be the norm in how Americans constructed and understood cities; now they are exclusive and gentrified, devoid of the cultural confluence that made them alive.
In most urbanist conversations of this kind, New York City is usually held up as the great exception to the rule of decline, a fact commonly attributed to its strong public transit and lack of car dependency. But this doesn’t capture the whole story: it is important to expand our understanding of the decline of American cities not solely as a consequence of cars, but of commuting writ large. Stepping out of Penn Station into the impersonal hell of Midtown—where some one million commuters work—inspires in me a sense of questionable priorities. What was once a multifaceted urban space has been replaced with commuter-conducive monotony, only this time, it’s not highways and parking lots. It’s thousands of gray office buildings and millions of boring cubicles. Against the backdrop of the city’s ever worsening vacant housing crisis and rising rents, many increasingly question the purpose of devoting this central real estate to buildings that are empty for 16 hours a day.
There is a familiar refrain often used in defense of suburbs: “the cities have no space.” In NYC, a look at the skyline or to square footage per capita seems to confirm this. It is further anecdotally substantiated by the undeniably valid concerns of New Yorkers regarding gentrification. But these observations reflect misplaced priorities, not a lack of space. Although Manhattan’s skyline has exploded over the last century, its population peaked in 1910. Most of the new skyscrapers have been dedicated to luxury housing, or office space, both of which largely sit empty. Gentrification is similarly tied to the speculative power of its economic elite, who can price out locals to erase neighborhood character. It is this same land-owning class that actively prevents construction of new affordable housing. Cities should be understood as places of opportunity, where people can live where they want to. The prospect of a future where locals are priced out of their cities, and opportunity seekers are similarly stifled should scare Americans. Commuting lies at the core of this ecosystem of exclusion; through office buildings, roads, and parking lots, it subsidizes the gradual process by which these people are pushed out. The modern phenomenon of commuting is thus incompatible with the culture and life of America’s great cities. No one wants it, but everyone pays for it.