Rational Choices About Where to Live
Brian Gongol

Big Cities Get All the Glamour
The concept of "moving to the big city" is so well-ingrained in the American mythology that it's practically beyond dispute. It's virtually assumed that those young people with the opportunity to do so will move promptly upon graduation (usually from college) to the largest city that will take them. Going to work and live in smaller communities is looked upon as a social misstep -- in some cases, a virtual declaration that one is incapable of success amid the challenges of the big city.

But what if it is a rational choice?

The one factor that most people identify as the deciding appeal of large metropolitan areas is that, by living there, one can be "close to the action." And, geographically, there's no dispute. Living in Chicago, for instance, places one much closer to the major cultural opportunities that the city has to offer than, for instance, living in Des Moines.

But. As anyone who has ever traveled within a large city knows, geographic "closeness" isn't the same as a quick trip. In fact, just two significant factors are enough to make it evident that it's a perfectly rational decision to live in a much smaller metropolitan area, even if one wants to be close to the action.

Factor One: Time Spent in Transit
Consider Chicago versus Des Moines. The average (probably mean) one-way commute in Chicago is 31 minutes per day, while in Des Moines it's about 19. Thus, we can build the following tally of travel times:
Chicago Des Moines Difference
One-Way Commute (min) 31 19 12
Round-Trip Per Day (min) 62 38 24
Round-Trip Per Week (min) 310 190 120
Round-Trip Per 50-Week Work Year (min) 15,500 9,500 6,000
That's 6,000 minutes per year that the average commuter in Chicago spends in-transit that the average Des Moines commuter doesn't. A difference of 100 hours each year.

A drive between downtown Chicago and the far-western suburbs of Des Moines takes about five to five-and-a-half hours. We'll round up and call it an 11-hour round trip. For the difference in commuting times, the average Des Moines commuter could travel to Chicago nine times a year. Realistically, can most Chicago residents say that they take advantage of nine cultural opportunities a year that are exclusive to Chicago itself? Nine opportunities each year they could not have experienced in Des Moines, or Cedar Rapids, or Madison, or any other medium-sized metropolitan area within a reasonable driving radius of Chicago? Likely not.

This effect, by the way, is compounded in a number of ways, to the advantage of the smaller communities. For those who live in the suburbs, commuting times generally grow much worse in the major cities; meantime, many of the good jobs in the smaller metros are located in office parks that are often located in those same suburbs. It's not uncommon to find suburban Des Moines residents living just five minutes from the workplace. The suburb-to-suburb commute in Chicago is often as bad as or worse than the suburb-to-city commute.

Simultaneously, commute times don't account for the additional time spent in transit between home and chores or leisure travel. Accounting for the additional time inevitably spent en route to the grocery store, the gym, church, or even the gas station is likely to make the case even stronger for smaller metropolitan areas.

Factor Two: Cost of Living
The cost of living in major metropolitan areas is substantially higher than in many smaller communities. The median home price in metropolitan Chicago, for instance, is nearly twice what it is in Des Moines. Overall, Chicago's cost-of-living index is more than one-third above the national average, while Des Moines is about 10% lower than the average. Median household incomes for the two communities are not substantially different -- $50,538 in Des Moines; $52,121 in Chicago.

The result? One can live in relatively greater comfort in the smaller metropolitan area than in the larger one. And with the extra disposable income, one can afford to make an occasional trip from Des Moines to Chicago in order to take in those much-vaunted cultural attractions.

The Bottom Line: There's a Very Rational Argument for Living in Smaller Metros
The bottom line is that the patronizing attitude many people put on about their peers who choose to live outside the biggest metropolitan areas is nothing more than that -- an attitude, and an unsubstantiated one at that. Certainly, some people will choose to live in smaller communities simply because they are anxious about moving to the larger cities. But that doesn't negate the rationality of the choice many others make to live in smaller metropolitan areas. It's not necessarily the parochial choice some make it out to be. In fact, based on the additional leisure time avaiable and the substantially lower cost of living, smaller metropolitan areas may be the ideal hometowns of choice for people who want to maximize their opportunities to travel and engage in other cosmopolitan pursuits -- ones that their peers living in larger cities can neither afford nor spare the time to enjoy.