I've written recently that I've taken a sudden interest in urban planning, development, and the factors that lead to sprawl. And the main reason for that is because I hate driving and traffic. This article helps shed some light onto why:
Why is traffic so unpleasant? One reason is that it's a painful ritual we never get used to - the flow of traffic is inherently unpredictable. As a result, we don't habituate to the suffering of rush hour. (Ironically, if traffic was always bad, and not just usually bad, it would be easier to deal with. So the commutes that really kill us are those rare days when the highways are clear.) As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes, "Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."
The author goes on to describe a dilemma that many people face: a 45 minute drive to the burbs where they can have a nice big house, or a smaller apartment with a short commute. He argues that our tendency (in America generally) to go with the former is the result of not properly weighing the pros and the cons of the decision:
Consider two housing options: a three bedroom apartment that is located in the middle of a city, with a ten minute commute time, or a five bedroom McMansion on the urban outskirts, with a forty-five minute commute. "People will think about this trade-off for a long time," Dijksterhuis says. "And most them will eventually choose the large house. After all, a third bathroom or extra bedroom is very important for when grandma and grandpa come over for Christmas, whereas driving two hours each day is really not that bad." What's interesting, Dijksterhuis says, is that the more time people spend deliberating, the more important that extra space becomes. They'll imagine all sorts of scenarios (a big birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, another child) that will turn the suburban house into an absolute necessity. The pain of a lengthy commute, meanwhile, will seem less and less significant, at least when compared to the allure of an extra bathroom. But, as Dijksterhuis points out, that reasoning process is exactly backwards: "The additional bathroom is a completely superfluous asset for at least 362 or 363 days each year, whereas a long commute does become a burden after a while."
I usually ride my bike to work, and its a 4 minute commute pedaling casually. But I also appreciate that the math of living downtown where I work is much easier for me, seeing that I have no wife but more importantly more children. I think by far the biggest impediment to people moving into higher density areas are schools. Public schools where I grew up (in suburbs) are excellent whereas in the city they aren't. My parents never really had an option to live in the city because, like most people, they couldn't afford to send all of their children to private schools. So that says to me that perhaps the most important thing we can do to encourage the sort of sustainable* development that I think will be the future of all civilization let alone this country is to encourage reforms of the school system so people with families have the option.
*I would shy away from "sustainable development" as a descriptor since it carries connotations that it is environmentally motivated. Having hundreds of millions of people spread out all over the country is inefficient in a whole number of ways, including environmental but also economically and social. I think, and there are studies that show this, that the more people cluster and interact, the more creative and innovative they become, for example.