Sprawl traps drivers in traffic hell. It’s true that highways have gotten much more congested, but the worst traffic tends to be in densely populated urban areas that haven’t been building new roads, like New York and Chicago — the kind of places hailed by smart-growth planners but now avoided by companies looking for convenient offices. During the 1990′s, the number of suburban workers surpassed the number downtown. These commuters still encountered traffic jams, but by not driving downtown they could still get to work reasonably quickly. The length of the average commute, now about 25 minutes, rose just 40 seconds in the 1980′s and about 2 minutes in the 1990′s. Sprawl didn’t trap drivers — it gave them an escape.
Suburban car culture traps women. Critics complain that mothers in the suburbs are sentenced to long hours chauffeuring children to malls and soccer games and piano lessons, which are tasks that do indeed require a car. But so do most of their jobs. In his book ”Edge City,” the writer Joel Garreau traces the golden age of sprawl to the surge in women entering the work force in the 70′s and 80′s, when the number of cars in America doubled as developers rushed to build office parks and malls for women who didn’t have time to take the bus downtown. The only way to juggle all their responsibilities was to buy a car and find a job close to the stores and schools and day-care centers near their homes.
Sprawl is scarring the American landscape. If by ”landscape” you mean the pasture or forest near your home that has been paved, then sprawl does look like an abomination. Who wouldn’t prefer to be surrounded by greenery, especially when you’re not paying property taxes for it?
But if you look at the big picture, America is not paving paradise. More than 90 percent of the continental United States is still open space and farmland. The major change in land use in recent decades has been the gain of 70 million acres of wilderness — more than all the land currently occupied by cities, suburbs and exurbs, according to Peter Huber, author of ”Hard Green: Saving the Environment From the Environmentalists.” Because agriculture has become so efficient, farmers have abandoned vast tracts of land that have reverted to nature, and rural areas have lost population as young people migrate to cities. You may not like the new homes being built for them at the edge of your town, but if preserving large ecosystems and wildlife habitat is your priority, better to concentrate people in the suburbs and exurbs rather than scatter them in the remote countryside.
Mass transit is the cure for highway congestion. Commuter trains and subways make sense in New York, Chicago and a few other cities, and there are other forms of transit, like express buses, that can make a difference elsewhere. (Vans offering door-to-door service are a boon to the elderly and people without cars.) But for most Americans, mass transit is impractical and irrelevant. Since 1970, transit systems have received more than $500 billion in subsidies (in today’s dollars), but people have kept voting with their wheels. Transit has been losing market share to the car and now carries just 3 percent of urban commuters outside New York City. It’s easy to see why from one statistic: the average commute by public transportation takes twice as long as the average commute by car.
Anthony Downs, an economist at the Brookings Institution who favors giving more aid to transit, says the subsidies have social benefits (like helping people without cars), but he warns it will make little difference in highway congestion. O’Toole and Wendell Cox, a transportation expert and visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, estimate that even if Congress miraculously tripled the annual subsidy for transit, the average driver’s commute would be reduced by a grand total of 22 seconds.
Drivers are getting a free ride. Yes, the government spends a lot more money on highways than transit, but most of that money comes out of the drivers’ pockets. If you add up the costs of driving — the car owner’s costs as well as the public cost of building and maintaining highways and local streets, the salaries of police patrolling the roads — it works out to about 20 cents per passenger mile, and drivers pay more than 19 of those cents, according to Cox. A trip on a local bus or commuter train costs nearly four times as much, and taxpayers subsidize three-quarters of that cost.
Drivers do avoid paying some indirect costs of their cars, like the health consequences of the pollution from tailpipes. One of the most thorough attempts to measure these social costs was done by Mark Delucchi, a cost-benefit analyst at the University of California, Davis, who factored in everything from expenditures in the Persian Gulf to the cost of the real estate devoted to free parking lots. Autonomists complain that he overestimated the car’s costs, but even so, his calculations show that when compared with the social costs of transit systems (like taxpayer subsidies and noise from buses), the car is at least twice as cheap per passenger mile as transit.
New highways just make things worse. Environmentalists and smart-growth planners say that more highways merely create more problems because of ”induced demand,” also known as the if-you-build-it-they-will-come theory. They argue that any new stretch of highway will fill up quickly because drivers discover new uses for it. Adding new lanes or roads may ease traffic temporarily, they say, but ultimately you’re doomed to become like Los Angeles.
A new freeway does indeed attract new drivers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth building. Besides benefiting those drivers (no small thing), it eases the strain on the road network. This year’s report from the Texas Transportation Institute confirms other research showing that when you take population growth into account, traffic congestion has been increasing more rapidly in the cities that haven’t been building roads. The reason for Los Angeles’s traffic morass is that it didn’t build enough freeways, incredible as that sounds. The great symbol of sprawl is not what it seems when you compare it with other cities using the Census Bureau’s definition of an ”urbanized area,” which extends until the point where there’s open countryside. By this definition, Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in America, with 7,068 persons per square mile of urbanized area. Its traffic is terrible because it built only about half the freeways originally planned, so that it now has fewer miles of freeway per capita than any other major city.