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What If No One Is Actually Bowling Alone?

When demographic factors are taken into account, city-dwellers appear to spend about as much time socializing as their suburban counterparts.

Commuting makes up most of the difference in how city-dwellers and suburban residents spend time with neighbors. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Of all the major social divides in U.S., perhaps none is more visible than the one between urbanites and suburbanites. Urbanites take public transit, eat at restaurants, and stay out late. The reason they’re in cities, after all, is to take advantage of the amenities and lifestyle they offer. Suburbanites, by contrast, drive to work alone, nest at home, and go out a lot less. Or at least, those are the common stereotypes.

But as it is often true in politics, so is how we socialize: demographics is destiny. Once we account for that, America’s urbanites and suburbanites start to look a lot less different from one another.

A recent study by Eric Morris of Clemson University and Deirdre Pfeiffer of Arizona State University in Journal of Planning Education and Research puts these well-worn assumptions to the test. To get at this, the study uses American Time Use Surveys from 2003 to 2013 to examine the differences in the ways suburbanites and city-dwellers use their time on a day to day basis.

In particular they take a hard look at the idea put forward by Robert Putnam in his influential book Bowling Alone, which posits that suburbanization has eroded the close bonds or “social capital” that once pushed us closer together, causing Americans to become more isolated and to socialize less with neighbors who are not our families or roommates.

At first blush, this urban-suburban divide does seem to hold up.

City dwellers reported spending an average of about 92.8 minutes per day socializing with friends, acquaintances or neighbors, an additional 5.5 minutes per day compared to their suburban counterparts, who spend an average of 87.5 minutes per day.

Urbanites also spent more time socializing overall. City dwellers reported spending more time on average traveling (by a difference coefficient of 1.05), worshipping (.84), eating/drinking (.71), and making phone calls (.49) with people who were not relatives or members of their household than their suburban counterparts did. The only things they did less often than suburbanites were playing sports (-1.08) and volunteering (-.80).

Suburbanites also lived up to their homebody reputation, spending an average of 452.1 minutes of their waking hours at home, compared to 446.8 minutes at home for urbanites.

But these broad patterns leave one important thing out: the time urbanites and suburbanites spend commuting. Not surprisingly, urbanites had shorter commutes (23 minutes) than suburbanites (26 minutes). And even though a sizable percentage of city dwellers drive to work alone (68 percent), not as many as them do so as their suburban counterparts (80 percent).

There’s no doubt that the way we commute and the time we spend commuting affects the way we socialize with friends and neighbors. Time spent walking, biking, or taking mass transit to work was positively associated with socializing in the study—this makes sense as people are more likely to interact with others on these types of commutes.

Then again, the study also found that time spent driving was positively associated with socializing with friends and neighbors (this correlation, I should note, was smaller than for those who walk, bike or take transit to work).

But a funny thing happened when the authors controlled for the self-selecting qualities of city-dwellers, such as age, education, marriage, race, and employment. Once they take these differences into account via a technique they call “Propensity Score Matching,” these urban-suburban differences essentially disappear. When they compared demographically similar people who live in cities and suburbs, the differences between urbanites and suburbanites vanished completely.

Except for one area: bowling, Putnam’s classic example of our fraying social fabric and deepening isolation from one another. Of all the types of socializing the study examined, it was the only one where one can detect a significant difference between urbanites and suburbanites. Here, in fact, city dwellers were less likely to bowl with their neighbors and acquaintances than their suburban counterparts. As the study puts it: “Putnam picked an unfortunate strawman in ‘bowling alone,’ which is a virtually nonexistent activity.”

Despite the stereotypes often imposed upon urbanites and suburbanites, we may in fact be much more similar than we realize.

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