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Moving closer without changing addresses
On agglomeration economies, urban transportation planning, and how far you can stand to live away from the nearest Target store
With around 9 million residents, London is one of the largest metropolitan areas in Europe and would rank, if transplanted here, as one of the three largest in the United States. There are lots of larger urban areas elsewhere in the world, but few have quite the same economic heft and global influence.
■ Thanks to agglomeration effects, it's no surprise that lots of people still want to work close to the action. But that doesn't mean everyone wants to live in the center of the action, too. The ceremonial opening of a new commuter rail line to serve London and its surrounding areas has attracted a lot of attention, in no small part because, according to a Bloomberg report, "The line will bring an additional 1.5 million people within a 45 minute commute of central London".
■ Perhaps we too easily overlook the basic principle that transportation is a solution to housing challenges. Lots of people may have moved since the Covid-19 pandemic lit a fire in the housing market thanks to people for whom working from home became a viable option. But many jobs can't be performed remotely, which means there will always be a place for, well, place.
■ Rational people want good working opportunities, good prospects for career advancement, good basic public services (like schools, police, and fire protection), and good amenities. That last point is particularly important: Target, for example, claims to have a store within 10 miles of 75% of the US population. Given the choice, it's hard to imagine many upwardly-mobile Americans choosing to live much farther away from a Target, a grocery store, and at least a few good restaurants.
■ But many people remain far more tolerant of longer commutes to work, at least when necessary. That may adjust somewhat as it becomes increasingly normalized to spend some days working at a common site and some working from home. And that is where the impact of transportation will continue to have a long-term impact.
■ Being close to work (measured as the crow flies) isn't functionally as important as being chronologically close -- able to move swiftly back and forth without interruptions or delays. As long as things like central offices and water-cooler talk continue to exist, there will still be benefits to being close to the action.
■ But "close" isn't always measured in miles, and thoughtful infrastructure planning on the part of communities, especially those that can offer reasonably-priced housing options and good amenities, could turn out some very healthy benefits for incumbent and new residents alike. There's no need to wait until reaching the size of London to make those plans.