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Blue in the 'burbs

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

You may not have noticed, but Hollywood has: you’re miserable.

No, really. According to Census Bureau numbers, roughly 75 percent of Americans live in suburbs. And, according to one of last year’s Golden Globe nominees for best picture, that’s eating away at us.

“Our whole existence here [in the ’burbs] is based on this great premise that we’re special. That we’re superior to the whole thing,” declares the female lead in the movie Revolutionary Road. “But we’re not. We’re just like everyone else. We bought into the same, ridiculous delusion.”

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That “delusion,” as depicted in the film, is that a couple can be happily married, own a home with some land and raise children together in the suburbs. Indeed, it’s difficult to conceive of such a crazy notion.

But never fear, suburbanites. The government will ride to your rescue (if it doesn’t get stuck in heavy traffic on the way). The Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have teamed up on a new interagency partnership to create what they call “affordable, sustainable communities.” Hint: the communities won’t look like your current cul-de-sac.

In a news release, DOT and HUD announced they intend “to give American families:

• More choices for affordable housing near employment opportunities;

• More transportation options, to lower transportation costs, shorten travel times, and improve the environment;

• The ability to combine several errands into one trip through better coordination of transportation and land uses;

• Safe, livable, healthy communities.”

Well. We’d all like to think Washington has bigger problems to worry about than whether we make one trip or two to pick up, say, groceries and prescription medicine.

But, just for the sake of argument, consider the fact that it’s much easier to “combine errands” in suburbia than it is in Manhattan. With one trip to the Super Target, one can pick up everything from food to clothing to entertainment. That would require at least three separate stops in a city, imposing a much higher cost in both time and money.

Still, if Washington gets its way, we’ll have more people packed into smaller spaces.

How can we be so sure that’s going to be federal policy? In April Energy Secretary Steven Chu explained to The Washington Post, “You read stories in Europe where there are in small apartments zero-net energy consumption apartments [sic]. There is -- you know, body heat keeps a lot of the apartment warm. You can’t do this in a big apartment with a few people.” No, you can’t.

Nor can you do it with a big house in the suburbs. Of course, that’s one reason people move out of the crowded apartment and into the home -- they’re not interested in sharing body heat with dozens of others. They want space and privacy, and the suburbs provide it.

Another reason people want their own home is that, according to the Energy Department’s own 2008 Buildings Energy Data Book, the single family home is actually more energy efficient for its size. That survey reports that the only reason apartments seem more efficient is because they’re so much smaller, a trade-off that Americans, by moving to the suburbs in the millions, have shown we’re not prepared to make.

Housing policy expert Ronald Utt of The Heritage Foundation took a closer look at the Data Book and made a surprising discovery. “The Energy Department forgot to collect and incorporate information on the energy required to light the common areas, including exterior and parking areas, lobbies, stairwells, laundry rooms, and hallways” of apartment buildings, Utt writes.

He adds it “also forgot to collect data on the energy used to heat and cool these common areas and the energy used to operate the elevators, washers and dryers, and swimming pools.” Include that information and apartment living becomes far less efficient, combined body heat or not.

Every now and then Hollywood looks out across the fruited plain and scoffs.

In 1999 it was American Beauty, which collected five Oscars for depicting a world in which the Marine officer was the bad guy and the drug dealer was the good guy. One can only wonder if the producers of the film doubted themselves after Sept. 11, when real American military heroes went to Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban, which had been supported in large part by drug money.

In general, a policy that enjoys 75 percent support is considered “popular.” Well, three quarters of Americans have chosen to live in the suburbs. They’ve invested their time and their money into getting out of “the city.”

Filmmakers scoff at us at their own peril -- suburbanites are, after all, “customers.” As for Washington, bureaucrats there are free to huddle together in their offices. But they should allow Americans to keep our split-level ranches, no matter how unhappy we supposedly are.

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