SPRAWL IS NOT the worst thing that ever happened to the nation's cities. In fact, by many measures, it's been beneficial. Despite the cliche among some academics and intellectuals that sprawl leads to incoherent, unattractive, traffic-clogged cities, the reality is that it has benefited many people over many years. Most Americans today, including the vast majority of suburbanites, are happy where they live, work and play.
So what explains the great crusade against sprawl? How could a recent book on urban planning have opened with the unqualified -- and patently ludicrous -- assertion that "sprawl is America's most lethal disease"? How has the campaign against sprawl -- and the American car culture that goes with it -- become a potent political force across the country?
I would argue that to a great extent, worries about sprawl and traffic have developed not because our situation is so bad but precisely because it is so good. In good economic times, expectations tend to run ahead of what is possible. And soaring expectations rather than actual problems are, I believe, responsible for a good deal of our contemporary discontent.
A good example of this is the thunderous din of complaints about traffic in Los Angeles. From one perspective, this reaction is simply bizarre. Even when speeds on the freeway decline to 20 mph, drivers throughout the Los Angeles area move more quickly than they do by car or public transportation at the center of almost any large, older city in Europe or the United States.
Clearly the problem is not that congestion is objectively worse in Los Angeles. It is that the highway builders of the 1950s and 1960s were so successful in building their way out of congestion that people became used to driving across the entire metropolitan area at a mile a minute and made choices about where they lived and worked based on that reality.
When it comes to automobile travel, Los Angeles, perhaps more than almost any other large city in the world, suffers from a deflation of greatly raised expectations. After all, the residents of Paris, New York or Tokyo never even entertained the possibility that they could drive through the center of the city at 60 mph.
In recent years, it is true, L.A.'s congestion has gotten worse. But that is actually less the fault of sprawl than it is the result of things that have been done or not done because of misconceptions about sprawl. Consider the history. Today's solid anti-sprawl and anti-highway consensus first began to emerge in the 1960s, in part as a reaction against postwar urban renewal and highway construction. But rather than confine themselves to the quite real and indisputable damage that the intense campaign of freeway construction of those years did to existing urban neighborhoods, the anti-auto activists pushed further and claimed that the entire program hurt central cities by encouraging suburban growth.
Even more dramatically, they argued that constructing new roads was useless as a way to reduce congestion because, they said, the highways themselves "induced" traffic by generating new demand. Their most convincing proof for this assertion was the observation that new highways quickly filled with automobiles. From this they derived the notion that any new highway would simply fill itself up as soon as it was built, producing no net benefit. Hence, the widely accepted aphorism: "You can't build your way out of congestion."
The only way to break the vicious cycle of new roads, more traffic and increasing sprawl, the anti-auto forces claimed, was to stop building roads and create more mass transit. This would, according to their logic, turn the vicious cycle on its head, creating instead a virtuous cycle in which more people riding on urban mass transit would create more demand for work and housing within the city in areas convenient to transit stops.
This is, of course, the logic that has undergirded a great deal of public policy in Los Angeles and many places across the country in the last several decades. And it has led to the expenditure of billions of dollars on new transit systems, such as the new light-rail lines and subway in Los Angeles (as well as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's proposal to extend the subway still farther down Wilshire Boulevard).
However, despite this expenditure, transit's share of total trips has fallen and traffic has continued to get worse in almost every market in the country. In the L.A. region, for example, mass transit, which accounted for an extremely small 1.94% of trips in 1983, dropped to only 1.64% in 2003, according to figures compiled by transportation consultant Wendell Cox.
Why has this happened? I suggest that it is because so many people are locked into unrealistic assumptions about the way transit worked in the past or could work in the future.