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Is Your Long Commute Killing Democracy?

There are plenty of reasons why sitting in traffic is bad for you: research shows that longer commutes lead to worse health, more pollution, and less economic growth.

Now we can add to that list another victim of congestion: democracy itself.

According to a new study by the University of Connecticut and Stony Brook University, researchers have found a link between the length of commutes and people’s level of interest in civic affairs. According to the study, "Our analysis demonstrates that commuting leads to the greatest loss in political interest for low income Americans, and that this loss serves as a main mechanism through which commuting erodes political participation.”

In other words, the longer it takes you to get home every night, the less time or interest you have in voting, following the issues or even reading up on the news.

And so as the Federal Government shut-down begins to take hold, we as architects are finding that the lack of political engagement by the public makes it harder for policymakers to solve problems – including traffic. On Capitol Hill these days, there’s no shortage of fights on issues that merit debate. But without a passionate public demanding action on other, real “quality-of-life” problems like traffic congestion, is it any wonder that they take – no pun intended - a back seat to political brinkmanship?

It’s no wonder that it took Congress four years to pass a routine transportation bill in 2012 and that infrastructure investments routinely get short shrift in Washington. These issues affect everyone, but if people are too burdened by worrying how and when they’ll get home at night and other daily grinds of daily life, they will never speak up, and nothing will get done. One kind of gridlock begets another.

That's why architects and other design professionals are looking at how public health is impacted by how we design our communities. Creating opportunities for people to walk or bike, to live close to their jobs and amenities, and to enjoy the outdoors all make people healthier. They spur economic growth, make the air cleaner, and improve public safety.

Thanks to these findings, we also know they may lead to better civic participation

This is a challenge for every community, of every size, across the nation. It is the reason that the AIA and Carnegie Mellon University Art are hosting a Remaking Cities Congress in Pittsburgh this month to discuss strategies for making the places where we live healthier and more vibrant.

After all, it’s not just our family’s health that’s on the line. It’s the very health of our democracy, too.

Joe Smith is President of AIA- Pittsburgh


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