I now live in Brooklyn, but I’m originally from the metro Detroit area, and from anecdotal evidence it seems to me that home-work commutes are getting longer and longer. There’s a bunch of reasons:
1) Bad economy + bad housing market: those workers who can find a job (the lucky ones) find it in a distant place, but are unable to relocate because they can’t sell their homes
2) Suburban sprawl: this has reached fairly ridiculous proportions in suburban Michigan. Most middle-class white people don’t want to live in the city, or even anywhere close to the city. Development pushes north and west. Businesses are not concentrated downtown anymore—offices pop up in seemingly random places. Someone living in Rochester Hills, a northeast extreme of suburban expansion, may have to commute to Canton, a southwest example of the same.
There’s something dysfunctional about the way metro Detroit is now laid out, and it seems even more so when you consider that the trend continues, without any indication that simple geography is going to slow it down, while the population diminishes. When there’s fewer people you’d expect a city to contract in physical size.
The reasons for Detroit’s counterintuitive expansion are economic and social. (I honestly have no idea how neighborhoods like West Bloomfield, Grosse Pointe, and Livonia kept African-American families out for so long. But if past history is repeated, as minorities start to tip the balance, the white people will end up moving further and further away from the city). But the ramifications are environmental.
An article in the Dec. 20 issue of The New Yorker discusses the phenomenon of rebound. Rebound is what happens when increased efficiency in using a fuel, like oil or coal, causes consumption to increase. The basic argument is that, as use of fuels become more efficient, an economy will find more and more ways to consume it, thus increasing overall consumption. A link to the abstract here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/20/101220fa_fact_owen
A relevant example for Michigan’s current dilemma is the model T: if everyone had to drive a model T today, as opposed to air-conditioned/heated cars with XM radio and cup holders and DVD players, would they be willing to put with hour-long commutes?