Close To Home: Considering the Benefits of Living Local

Freeways, strip malls, never-ending residential developments…how did it get like this?

In a relatively short amount of time, the automobile was able to permeate almost every aspect of our daily lives, eventually affecting the form and scale of our built environment. Caught within sprawling communities built for the automobile, the typical America is unmotivated to go anywhere without a car, and the sheer distance between points A and B can seem daunting on foot.

Many of us want to break out of this cycle of sprawl, but what exactly makes a successful community? We look to iconic, walkable cities that developed long before the automobile—New York, London, Paris—and the benefits of denser living designed around foot traffic seem so obvious: streets filled with new and interesting people, people who in turn offer us a sense of security as we navigate the city; truly unique shops and restaurants whose diversity seems to push back against the predictable uniformity of corporate chains. These may seem like unattainable ideals for most of our country, but towns and cities across America are experiencing urban revivals—so a hot new destination may be a lot closer than you think. The true benefits of eating, shopping, and living local have many dusting off their comfortable shoes or bicycles and rethinking their “dependence” on cars.

If the Great Recession has taught us anything over the course of the past few years, it’s the ability to stretch a dollar. It is for this reason that we can appreciate the significant economic savings that eliminating or simply limiting automobile use can garner. According to the AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a sedan rose 1.1 cents per mile in 2012 to 59.6 cents per mile, or $8,946 per year (based upon 15,000 miles of annual driving).Forbes contributor J.D. Roth catalogued the economic benefit of changing his daily commute from one inside a car to one atop a bicycle. He saved nearly $1,000 in the first year, and he estimates more than $2,000 in savings for the following year. How would you spend an extra $2,000?

Though we could assign economic value to staying healthy (money saved on long term healthcare, for example), we tend to value good health for the way it makes us feel—and even the way it makes us look. But leaving your car at home can come with important long-term benefits, many which address the alarming health crisis that our country is facing. Perhaps with this fact in mind, a growing number of Americans have started to commutercise—using exercise such as walking and biking to get to work. A recent University of Wisconsin-Madison study suggests that each commutercising American is working toward his or her recommended minimum level of exercise, thereby contributing to the country’s fight against its looming obesity epidemic and helping to reduce the alarming prevalence of Type II Diabetes.

When commuters decide to leave their cars at home, we start to see environmental benefits emerge. A reduction in cars on the road, for example, will inevitably lead to a reduction in harmful air pollution in the surrounding community. Your physical health isn’t the only thing that stands to benefit: pedestrian friendly communities can lead to great mental health outcomes, as people are more likely to socialize. Whether you’re headed to a gallery opening, a street fair, or even the symphony, why not consider getting healthier and happier along the way?

Like any decision you make, the choice to limit your automobile use in order to pursue a more localized way of life doesn’t have to be a hard-and-fast rule. Depending on the community you live in, cars can come in handy at times. But the next time you grab your car keys, ask yourself if you need to drive at all—you may be surprised by the answer. There could be much more to your community than you think, you just need take the time to slow down and appreciate living local.

Jonathan McGrath
Urban Planner & Associate Writer for Localism