Why do American cities sprawl while European cities are compact? How does it affect our quality of life?

I’d like you to consider the popularity of Disney World. Why do so many suburbanites flock there? There are a myriad of reasons, I’m sure. People love the life-sized Disney characters, ready at any moment to make a kid smile or cry. There is alcohol and good food at EPCOT. And then the fun rides, of course. But I have a hard time believing those are the only reasons.

The average visitor spends only 3% of her time on rides or at shows, according to a Disney architect (Duany et. al 2000). The rest of the time? Visitors are either waiting in line or milling about enjoying the commodity they often lack in their hometowns: a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly public space.

Now imagine if Walt Disney built his parks with the fundamentals of mid-20th century urban design. Attractions would be miles apart, separated by parking lots and roads. That would be a much less pleasant experience.

After World War II, American cities began sprawling in ways very much unlike Disney World. They were like spider webs that wouldn’t stop growing. The results, according to most experts, are hazardous to our health. But some economists believe the only real downside to the suburbs is that not everyone can afford to move there. Before I delve into the literature surrounding that debate, I want to define suburban sprawl, also called urban or developmental sprawl. The five components of sprawl are below (Duany et. al 2000). They will be familiar to you:

  • Housing subdivisions: Suburban zoning ordinances divide residential areas from office and recreational space. The names of the large, exclusively residential subdivisions often pay homage to the natural or historic resource they displaced. My grandparents’ neighborhood of Forest Hills, for instance. There were once trees on those hills. Now there are only houses.
  • Shopping malls: You’d know it when you see it. The strip centers are usually unreachable by foot or bike.
  • Office parks: People work there, but first they drive there.
  • Civic institutions: A suburb needs schools, government buildings and churches. Those places fit into this category. They are also unlikely to be reached by foot or bike.
  • Roadways: Each component listed above is dedicated to essentially one activity, which is why suburbanites spend so much time on top of this fifth category. Stop and start traffic is largely a by-product of a city’s design.

The origin of American sprawl and how it differs from Europe

Sprawl can really be traced back to one object: the automobile. Without the invention of the car, this country wouldn’t be where it is today. But in the early years of the 1900s, America was actually behind Europe in the car game. In Germany, Karl Benz became the first to produce a car with an internal combustion engine in 1886. Around the same time in France, cars began to be mass-marketed (Glaeser 2004). In America, there were no road signs. Laws restricted the use of automobiles, and the cars themselves were uncomfortable and unreliable (Frumkin et. al 2004).

But then Henry Ford did his thing. The Model T changed everything in the 1910s. Germany didn’t reach America’s 1920 car ownership rate until 1970 (Glaesar 2004). By 1950, one in five American households had a car.

In today’s American city, owning a car is essentially required. It’s more expensive than public transit, but it also saves time. It’s ubiquity means that our cities were designed around the car rather than the humans in the car. The primary goal of sprawl is to allow vehicular traffic to move from point A to point B with a minimum level of difficulty (Frumkin et. al 2004).

There were other reasons for the sprawl. Americans, inspired in part by European thinking, valued domesticity, privacy and isolation. A romanticized view of nature also took shape in the late 1800s. The lawn — no longer needed to be used as a farm — was suddenly seen as the picturesque setting for the family home. Historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote: “By romanticizing the benefits of private space and by combining the imagery of the New England village with the notion of Thomas Jefferson’s gentleman farmer individuals like Catharine Beecher, Andrew Jackson Downing, and Calvert Vaux created a new image of the city as an urban-rural continuum and spawned a remarkable generation of landscape architects … who proposed fundamental changes in the form of the metropolis. By the 1870s, the word suburb no longer implied inferiority or derision” (Frumkin et. al 2004).

Unlike in Europe, America had plenty of land to work with. As cities increasingly became perceived as dirty and gross, residents moved out to the land surrounding them. But the suburb’s filament didn’t truly unreel until the years after World War II. The Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration operated loan programs that provided mortgages for over eleven million new homes. They avoided the renovation or construction of urban housing types like mixed-use buildings or row houses. The era of the single-family unit was born — and celebrated. You see, planners at that time wanted nothing more than to separate everything from everything else.

This philosophy had its roots in Europe. In the mid 1800s, cities like London, Paris and Barcelona were basically uninhabitable. Industrial and residential areas were one and the same. Soot and smoke shrouded people and their homes. Then planners effectively advocated for the separation of the factories and neighborhoods. That, along with public health measures like sewage systems, dramatically improved the conditions of those cities.

Still, those European cities are nothing like the American ones we know and love (or hate). They’re rather dense. London and Paris both pack more people per square mile than any American city. On the chart below, Los Angeles is America’s most dense city. In reality, it’s not even close to New York. The Big Apple includes the suburban borough Staten Island, which reduces its average density score. Population-weighted density measures the actual concentration of people within a metro area. The New York metro area scores over 2.5 times higher in that metric than the Los Angeles metro area (Florida 2012). Most research on sprawl puts America’s worst offenders in the Deep South, including Atlanta (Murphy 2017). You can drive about 70 miles one way and still be in the metro Atlanta area. In comparison, just 35 miles of British countryside separate Manchester and Liverpool, two entirely different cities.

Government regulation and sprawl: A case study

Other than the federal home loans discussed above, how else did the government play a role in suburban sprawl? Let’s use Houston as an example. It’s definitely a sprawl city: only 5.9% of employed adults commute using public transit. But on the surface, it doesn’t look like the government played a big role in getting it there. The city lacks a zoning code, which defines how property in specific geographic zones can be used. Because of this, some might argue Houston’s sprawl originated because of the free market and individual choice, but that’s not the case.

Houston’s government asserted itself in other ways. Until 1998, Houston’s city code set a minimum lot size at 5,000 square feet for single-family homes. Today, it mandates too much space for parking. For every 1,000 square foot of land area, office buildings must provide at least 2.5 parking spaces. Shopping centers must provide 4–5 spaces for the same size building. A sea of parking lots in front of buildings discourages walking by lengthening pedestrians’ commutes. Houston also built several expressways with state and local support and mandated anti-pedestrian street design. Major thoroughfares must have 100-feet-right-of-way while others should be around 50–60 right-of-way, which includes the street and sidewalk. The wide streets make it more difficult (and perhaps more dangerous) to cross the street, thus discouraging people from walking along the sidewalk.

All of this combined to create a city that depends almost entirely on the car. Most Houstonians don’t like it. 55% of respondents to a 2003 survey said they’d rather a central urban setting than a suburban setting (Lewyn 2005).

A long, lonely, angry commute

The design of the typical American city essentially requires owning a car. The 2000 Census determined that among households with two or more members, less than one-third had less than two cars (Glaeser 2004). We use those cars A LOT. In Atlanta, the average resident can expect to drive 34 miles each day and spend 34 hours per year stuck in congested traffic (Frumkin et. al 2004).

Unfortunately for us, driving to work is among the least enjoyable things a person can do. A 2004 study found that commuting has a mean negative affect rating of 0.89 and a positive affect rating of 3.45, the lowest of any activity studied. They found this by asking respondents to describe how an activity made them felt with choices including happy, warm, frustrated and hassled. Each word was assigned an effect score of 0 (no feeling) to 6 (a lot of feeling). Other activities studied included working, housework and taking care of kids (Kahneman et. al 2004).

All this time on the road leads to some pent up anger. Aggressive drivers account for an estimated one third of the crashes and two thirds of the deaths on U.S. highways, according to the National Highway Traffic Administration. Road rage is linked with sprawl. Studies show that the top five metropolitan areas for road-rage induced deaths are San Bernardino, Tampa, Phoenix, Orlando and Miami. All are sprawling, suburban cities (Duany et. al 2000). The National Traffic and Safety Administration found in 1998 that the two primary reasons for aggressive driving were being behind schedule and increased congestion, which wouldn’t happen without suburban street design (Pohanka 2004).

The car is quicker (if you have one)

Driving is actually more efficient than public transportation. The median commute time in the year 2000 for people driving alone to work was 24.1 minutes. The median commute time for people on public transportation was 47.7 minutes (Glaeser 2004).

New York is perhaps the most European-style of the American cities. It’s dense, ideal for walking and has a bustling public transit system. New York City is the only American city where the majority of its residents use public transportation. But purely by commute time, it’s actually not that great. The average commute in New York City is 39 minutes, the longest of any large city. Edge cities, meanwhile, have an average commute of 21 minutes (Glaeser 2004). The numbers need a little context. New York’s average commute time, like its density, is negatively influenced by car-dependent areas like Staten Island and the neighborhood of Bayside, Queens. Those in Manhattan have an average commute time of around 30 minutes. Someone in the suburban Rockaway Peninsula can expect a commute of over 50 minutes.

The necessity of car ownership and average travel distance have large effects on political participation in our elections. Researchers found that there is a statistically significant difference in participation between car owners and non-car owners. They used voter registration and automobile ownership data from Michigan, which has a car ownership rate (92.2%) close to the U.S. average (91.3%). They found that 36% of Michigan voters without a car voted in the 2018 general election, while 66% of those with a car voted. That’s a difference of about 30 percentage points. The difference is even greater among young and non-white voters, thus exacerbating an already lagging participation among those groups.

In addition, voters without a car who live far away have lower turnout rates. Researchers took a 1% sample from the 67,168 Michigan registered voters and calculated how long it would take for each person to travel to the voting location by car, by car in traffic, by public transportation and by walking. The difference between the fastest non-driving mode of transportation and transportation by car is larger for some than it is for others. Among the Michigan voters for whom access to a car would reduce their travel time by more than 40 minutes, car access has an effect on turnout of 27.1 percentage points. That difference is reduced to 21.6 percentage points for those who have a non-car transportation of time of less than 9.43 minutes (de Benedictis-Kessner 2020).

Does sprawl hurt the environment? And is it an overall good thing?

It depends on who you ask. According to economists Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn, it’s not that bad. In the 20 years leading up to their 2004 paper, the amount of forest increased. The increase in urban land area is also irrelevant to overall forest cover. After all, 95% of the country remains undeveloped (Glaeser 2004). Look at the west, for instance. Just 20% of Americans live on the western side of an imaginary line between San Antonio and Fargo, North Dakota. Most of the land just isn’t used (80% of Americans).

One potential problem with sprawl is car pollution. As people drive further and further distances, their cars emit more and more nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. These emissions threaten the public’s health, increasing the risk of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and societal repercussions from climate change (Frumkin et. al 2004).

Even still, sprawl is an overall good phenomenon, according to Glaeser and Kahn. Life expectancy has increased as sprawl has increased. Quality of living, including Americans’ love of privacy, is also associated positively with sprawl. The only gripe Glaeser and Kahn had with sprawl was that not everyone can afford to move to suburbia. Historically, that disproportionately included Black people and other minorities (Glaeser 2004).

A sprawling society has real consequences, some good and some bad. But purely in terms of ideal city design, the suburbs are clear losers. There’s a reason why New York is seen as the gold standard of American cities, commute time be damned. It’s a city meant not for the car but for the people in it.

SOURCES

de Benedictis-Kessner, Justin and Palmer, Maxwell. “Driving Turnout: The Effect of Car Ownership on Electoral Participation.” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP20–032, October 2020.

Duany, Andres, et. al. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. North Point Press, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2000.

Florida, Richard. “America’s Truly Densest Metros: New Census data offers insight on a better way to measure the density of U.S. cities.” Bloomberg City Lab. Oct. 15, 2012. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-10-15/america-s-truly-densest-metro-areas

Frumkin, Howard, et. al. Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities. Island Press, 2004.

Glaeser, Edward L. and Kahn, Matthew E. “Sprawl and Urban Growth.” National Bureau of Economic Research. May 2003.

Kahneman, et. al. “A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method.” Science Mag. 2004.

Lewyn, Michael. “How Overregulation Creates Sprawl (Even in a City without Zoning).” Wayne Law Review, Georgia Washington University Law School. 2005.

Murphy, Douglas. “Where is the world’s most sprawling city?” The Guardian. April, 19, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/apr/19/where-world-most-sprawling-city-los-angeles

“80% of Americans Live East of This Line (And Other Interesting Population Patterns)” YouTube, uploaded by That is Interesting, 24 Dec. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6u3KZSgPf7w&ab_channel=ThatIsInteresting

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