The United States of America is, by global or historical standards, an extremely wealthy society. Under the circumstances, I often think it’s helpful to try to refocus political debates a bit away from fixation on wealth/income/GDP and talk about concrete specific national problems. Annie Lowrey’s article on the myriad ills (obesity, stress, insomnia, back pain, anxiety, loneliness, etc.) associated with long commutes is an excellent example. Any given individual can usually improve his commute by getting richer. If you take the bus to work, you can buy a car instead. You can move to a better location. Whatever. But it’s hard to see how a 10 percent increase in per capita GDP is going to translate into better commutes across the board. The speed of car commuting, at this point, is limited by the presence of other cars on the road not by technological impediments to making cars go faster.
But just because we can’t improve commuting by getting richer doesn’t mean we can’t improve commuting! It means we have to improve policy in other regards. Specifically congestion pricing and better housing policy could easily put more people within walking distance of their jobs, increase the number of people with access to high-quality rail transit, and speed up automobile and bus commutes.