Growing up, I lived in two relatively compact towns. Carlisle, MA, is tiny and sparse populated, with 2-acre zoning for homes. I don’t know precisely, but the center of town was about two miles away. Several churches and the grammar and middle school were there, although we had to go to the next town for a decent sized grocery store or, as I recall, a gas station. Terra Linda, CA, part of San Rafael, CA, was slightly more spread out, but it was still two miles from home to school and church, grocery stores, our family doctor, or almost anything else we needed. The library was three or four miles, but no worse than that. Dad’s commute in California was originally about 20 miles, but after a job change, it was less than a mile.
In my working, adult life, distances have been longer. They weren’t so long for my first job, at IBM in Endicott, NY. For most of my time there, I had a four-mile commute, and grocery stores and the like were between me and work. After that, though, distances got longer routinely. South Bend? Some of the time, I was four or five miles away, and some of the time, I was nine miles from campus. From the home we eventually bought, it was five miles to the larger, more super market, for groceries. South Bend was the first place I lived where the city had sprawled out over farm land, so distances were longer because developers leaped past farmers who didn’t want to sell. The time near Detroit magnified that effect: home was 20 miles of freeway from work, so we could afford a larger place in a nicer neighborhood, but, again, even the grocery store was farther away. The DC suburbs were the same. The Virginia side had green belts to preserve some nature, but they also lengthened commutes. For a few months, I had an office less than two miles from home, but more of the time, my commute was seven to ten miles while I still worked in Virginia, and twenty miles when I first worked in Maryland. Moving to Maryland reduced that commute to a mere seven miles; again, we were living on former farmland next to a greenbelt to have a larger home in a nicer neighborhood. The supermarket seemed close, being 1.5 miles again, comparable to Terra Linda again. Still, unlike my first apartment in Endicott, it wasn’t walking distance to a market.
Bloomington, Illinois, was where I lived two miles beyond the bypass around town, because Bloomington, too, had seen farmland converted to subdivisions, including where I briefly lived. My commute to work there, too, was about seven miles. Peoria a few months later was similar. I might have lived ten miles from work as the crow flew, but the faster route was to take highways that ended up being about 17 miles one way. Again, there was a Kroger’s market about two miles away, but most things were much farther away than that, including downtown Peoria. As for Austin, it sprawls so much, it includes parts of three counties, and I’m twenty miles from city hall. The new, closer market is a mere two miles away; we drove three or four miles for groceries before it opened.
All of this is on my mind as I consider where I should live for my next job. My new company’s campus is on an old farm in an old, small town, Verona, about fifteen miles from the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison. There are lots of homes on Madison’s southwest side and in Verona itself; in the pictures of one home we’re considering, you can see the corporate campus in the background of at least one picture. Madison isn’t a large metropolitan area; it’s half the population of Austin, but twice the size of the Bloomington area. Verona has a supermarket or two; if we live in Verona, we might end up driving five miles, to one or another grocery store in southwest Madison. We have to decide how much it’s worth to us to live within a mile of my office or within five miles of my office. Doing so might let me park my car for months at a time and ride my bike on dry days to work when it’s above freezing, which I’m assured is more of the year than not. Do we treat Verona as a town unto itself or just as a distant neighborhood of Madison? Will my wife eventually get a job for which she’ll commute into central Madison, perhaps at the University of Wisconsin for at a state office?
How foreign does this discussion seem to my distant cousins in Brittany, England, or Ireland? For that matter, how foreign does this seem to someone raised on Staten Island or somewhere in the city of Chicago?
Perspective can be a weird thing, I guess.