EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Redesigning Cities for People: Car-Centered Urban Sprawl

One of the less desirable dimensions of the extraordinary urban growth of the last half-century has been the sprawl of cities. In an article in Scientific American entitled "The Science of Smart Growth," Donald Chen writes about the phenomenal development of Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1990s. In a decade that began with preparations to host the Olympic Games, Atlanta led all other U.S. cities in population growth, home building, job openings, and highway construction. A part of the "new South," the city exploded in size. Today it has become a nightmare, one with worsening air pollution, congestion verging on gridlock, and an escalating sense of frustration among residents. Sprawling over an area the size of Delaware, it has the longest commute time of any city in the countrylonger even than in Los Angeles or Houston.8

Atlanta is unique among American cities because its unusually fast development turned it into a disaster so abruptly and dramatically. With the rapidly spreading ownership of automobiles after World War II, a home in the suburbswith access to the city but life in a low-density community with a yard and a drivewayappeared highly desirable. Zoning regulations requiring large lots for individual homes ensured that cities would be surrounded by low-density suburbs. Areas were often exclusively residential, with no mixing of shops or businesses among the residences.9

One analyst defined sprawl as "the degenerate urban form that is too congested to be efficient, too chaotic to be beautiful, and too dispersed to possess the diversity and vitality of a great city." In countries such as the United States and in many developing nations, where cities have developed largely after the arrival of the automobile and have ignored land-use planning, sprawl has become the dominant form of urban development.10

Among the consequences of this extensive low-density development are rising automobile dependency, rising real estate taxes, longer commute times, worsening air pollution, and, above all, frustration because the population density is too low to support a meaningful public transport system. The American dream became the American nightmare.

Once low-density suburbs surround a city, people living in these areas do not have many housing options. Donald Chen points out that they have "a very limited range of choices in the style and location of new housingtypically, single-family homes in automobile-oriented neighborhoods built on what was once forest or farmland."11

One consequence of the low-density development associated with one-acre building lots is high taxes to cover the sheer cost of providing water and sewerage services and maintaining roads. As the suburbs expand, they require new schools. Meanwhile, existing schools within the city close. It is not uncommon, even in states with declining populations, to be investing heavily in new school construction simply because of the concentration of young couples in the suburbs that are sprawling ever farther from the city itself. Other services, such as ambulance and fire fighting, also cost more in sprawling communities.12

Long and frustrating commutes are taking a toll on those living in the suburbs. Public concern about sprawl and whether it can be stopped or even reversed is on the rise. A poll taken in 2000 by the Pew Charitable Trust indicates that more Americans are concerned with traffic congestion and sprawl than with crime, jobs, or education, the traditional issues of primary concern.13

Increasing traffic delays are commonplace. A Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study on mobility notes that in the larger U.S. urban communities, time spent sitting in traffic jams increased from 11 hours per person in 1982 to 36 hours in 1999. Los Angeles ranked number one in time wasted56 hours a year, nearly half of the typical annual vacation time of three weeks. (See Table 9-2.) In Washington, D.C., the typical automobile commuter spends 46 hours sitting in traffic jams each year, reducing the time spent with family or exercising. The worse the traffic congestion, the more sedentary the life-style.14

TTI calculates the congestion bill for the 68 areas analyzed in 1999 at $78 billion a yearnearly $300 for every American. This includes the value of 4.5 billion hours wasted in traffic and nearly 7 billion gallons of excessive gasoline consumption. It does not, however, include any of the costs associated with the worsening air pollution from the millions of idling engines or the effect of additional carbon emissions on the earth's climate.15

Many communities try to deal with traffic congestion by building more roads. But that has not worked. As Richard Moe, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, observes, "Building more roads to ease traffic is kind of like trying to cure obesity by loosening the belt."16

The automobile promised mobility, and in largely rural settings it delivered just that. But as societies have urbanized, the inherent conflict between the automobile and the city has become all too visible, with almost all the world's cities now plagued with traffic congestion, noise, and vehicular air pollution. The average speed of a car in London today is little different from that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago. In Bangkok, which seems to suffer from perpetual gridlock, the average motorist in 1999 spent the equivalent of 44 working days sitting in an automobile going nowhere.17

Cities surrounded by low-density suburbs are facing a new challengehow to attract or even keep investment in factories and offices. Increasingly, corporations use congestion pricing in deciding whether to locate in a particular city. If traffic congestion raises commute times for employees and the cost of moving raw materials and finished products, a company may well decide to move elsewhere. In Atlanta, Hewlett Packard has begun rethinking whether it wants to continue with expansion. Traffic congestion affects both the productivity and morale of employees.18

At the local level, some U.S. communities have taken steps to control urban sprawl. At the state level, the leader has been Oregon, which 20 years ago adopted boundaries to urban growth. State law required each community to project its growth needs for the next 20 years and then, based on the results, draw an outer boundary for the city that would accommodate that growth. Richard Moe observes, "This has worked in Oregon because it forced development back to the city. Lot sizes are smaller. There is more density, which is made possible by mass transit. There has been a doubling in the workforce in downtown Portland over the last 20 years without one new parking lot, without one new parking space."19

Arthur Nelson of the Lincoln Land Institute has analyzed growth patterns in U.S. cities using numerous economic and environmental indicators. The contrasting experience of Portland, which has engaged urban sprawl head on, and Atlanta, which ignored the issue, is revealing. Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, the growth in population, jobs, and income in the two cities were about the same, but that's where the similarity ends. (See Table 9-3.) Property taxes dropped 29 percent in Portland and rose 22 percent in Atlanta. Energy use, which actually declined in Portland, climbed in Atlanta. Air pollution (ozone) dropped 86 percent in Portland while climbing 5 percent in Atlanta. And finally, neighborhood quality, measured by an amalgam of indicators, improved by 19 percent in Portland while declining 11 percent in Atlanta.20

There is another, more fundamental issue associated with car-centered transport systems. Will they be viable for land-scarce developing countries? Given the density of population and the cropland shrinkage per person, countries like Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, and Pakistan simply lack the land needed to accommodate an auto-centered transport system and to feed their people. Increasingly, they will have to choose between the automobile and food security.21


Table 9-2. Annual Costs of Traffic in Selected U.S. Cities
Urban Areas
Annual Delay
Per Person
Excess Fuel Consumed
Per Person

Cost of Congestion
Per Person

(gallons of gas)
Los Angeles, CA
Seattle-Everett, WA
Atlanta, GA
Houston, TX
Washington, DC-MD-VA
Denver, CO
San Francisco-Oakland, CA
Boston, MA
Portland, OR-Vancouver, WA
New York, NY-Northeastern NJ

1Including delay and fuel cost.
Source: David Schrank and Tim Lomax, The 2001 Urban Mobility Report (Texas Transportation Institute and The Texas A&M University System, May 2001).


Table 9-3. Changes in Portland and Atlanta Regions from Mid-1980s to Mid-1990s
Indicator Portland, OR Atlanta, GA
  (percent change)
Population growth +26 +32
Job growth +43 +37
Incme +72 +60
Property tax -29 +22
Vehicle miles traveled + 2 +17
Single occupant vehicle -13 +15
Commute time - 9 + 1
Air pollution (ozone) -86 + 5
Energy consumption - 8 +11
Neighborhood quality +19 -11
Source: See endnote 20.


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8. Donald D.T. Chen, "The Science of Smart Growth," Scientific American, December 2000, pp. 84-91.

9. Ibid.

10. Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, speech on sprawl, 1999 Red Hills Spring Event Dinner, Tall Timbers Research Station, Tallahassee, FL, 24 March 1999.

11. Chen, op. cit. note 8.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. David Schrank and Tim Lomax, The 2001 Urban Mobility Report (Texas Transportation Institute and The Texas A&M University System, May 2001).

15. Ibid.

16. Moe, op. cit. note 10.

17. Average travel speeds from Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999), pp. 82-83.

18. Chen, op. cit. note 8, p. 84.

19. Moe, op. cit. note 10.

20. Table 9-3 from Arthur C. Nelson, "Regulations to Improve Development Patterns," in Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Metropolitan Development Patterns: Annual Roundtable 2000 (Cambridge, MA: 2000), p. 78, discussed in Molly O'Meara Sheehan, City Limits: Putting the Breaks on Sprawl, Worldwatch Paper 156 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, June 2001), pp. 31-32.

21. USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, electronic database, Washington, DC, updated May 2001.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute