Interview: Steve Johnson

"The Commuting Effect" June 15, 2005

"When I... would ask my students that question, 'Why don't you get involved?' They'd say, 'Um, I don't have enough time,' 'Nobody asked me,' and 'It won't make any difference.' I always thought that was classic—all the theories I could think of and it turns out my students answered it in three statements. I think that probably, across the board, that's the way people often feel.

"So obviously we need to make sure there are opportunities—that people feel like they're being asked. We need to, again, make it effective. And the more challenging question is the third one in there— which is how do you get around the fact that people do feel like they have less time. Now there have been some studies showing that actually we don't. So, this may be a perceptual thing as much as it is in actuality. People worked long hours back in the days that were civically rich, when they worked in the factories 16 hours a day. So maybe there wasn't any more or less time; that's just people's perception.

"When we went to small towns, we asked them what's your commute distance? Which was a little odd question when you're in a town the size of Redmond, or a small town compared to Portland.

"But Putnam has said, that when you add 10 minutes to a commute time, it decreases the social capital and civic engagement. In other words, the more activities you have taking up time that might also be utilized for volunteer activity, you're going to have less to contribute.

"So you end up with less time available because of physical design of cities, because of maybe distances between where we live and where we work. We even decrease it [social capital and civic engagement] when we have a magnet school operation like we do in Portland where the kids are being transported to another community. Those things begin to decrease the social capital capacity."

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