The problem is not that America is too small to handle 300 million people. This is a vast nation with huge areas of affordable, largely unpopulated land. The problem is no one wants to live in the wide open spaces. The problem is we all want to live in the same place.
Having traveled to all 50 states many times, I'm convinced of it. Our ancestors spread from east to west across the continent, clearing forests, planting crops, raising houses and small towns, but we are now abandoning the countryside. Big cities have consolidated much of the political and economic power to draw business, so we have clustered ever more around giant metroplexes seeking employment and the hope of a secure financial future.
As competition for those jobs has grown, the competition for affordable housing nearby has grown too, pushing middle-class families further and further out beyond the suburbs.
The result: Commutes that were once considered unthinkable, except in a handful of the very largest cities, are now common. One hour. Ninety minutes. More. Each way. Studies show that the average American worker now spends more time in his or her car than on vacation. We eat in our cars, try to visit with our spouses, review the kids' school days, catch up on the news, all on the move.
Nearly everyone I talk to says they can't afford to live closer to the cities, but they also feel they can't afford to retreat from their well-paying big city jobs either. They are terrified by the uncertainty of employment as they get older and worry about failing company pension plans, a debt-riddled populace, and soaring costs for health care and education for their children. Maybe we're greedy too: We want big screen TVs, yet another cell phone, and an iPod for every person ... not the old ones, for crying out loud, the newest, smoking hot video ones.
I thought about all this during my 40-minute drive to work this morning in Washington, DC. (Don't hassle me too much. I've taken the Metro plenty of times and I biked to work 20 miles roundtrip for a year.)
Are our cities just too big? Do we just want too much? Or is our drive toward the future with 300 million people along for the ride just going to mean more, more and more driving?