At the start of the twentieth century, visionaries like Fritz Lang imagined a world of increasingly vertical cities with streets darkened by the shadows of immense towers. Brilliant architects, like William Van Alen, designed great skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building, and others, like Le Corbusier, planned a world built at staggering heights. But twentieth-century urban America didn’t belong to the skyscraper; it belonged to the car.
Transportation technologies have always determined urban form. In walking cities, like central Florence or Jerusalem’s old city, the streets are narrow, winding, and crammed with shops. When people had to use their legs to get around, they tried to get as close as possible to each other and to the waterways that provided the fastest way into or out of the city. Areas built around trains and elevators, like midtown Manhattan and the Chicago Loop, have wider streets often organized in a grid. There are still shops on the streets, but most of the office space is much further from the ground. Cities built around the car, like much of Los Angeles and Phoenix and Houston, have enormous, gently curving roads and often lack sidewalks. In those places, shops and pedestrians retreat from the streets into malls. While older cities usually have an obvious center, dictated by an erstwhile port or a rail station, car cities do not. They just stretch toward the horizon in undifferentiated urban sprawl.
Places like Atlanta and Houston remind us that there are places that lie between hyperdense Hong Kong and rural Saskatchewan. Living and working in car-oriented Silicon Valley offers plenty of proximity, at least to people in the computer industry. The threat that these places pose to traditional cities reflects the fact that they offer some of the old advantages of urban access along with plenty of land and the ability to drive everywhere.
While the rise of car-based living was bad for many older cities, it wasn’t bad for everyone. Excoriating the exurbs is a popular intellectual pastime, but the people who moved to the suburbs weren’t fools. The friends of cities would be wiser to learn from Sunbelt sprawl than to mindlessly denigrate its inhabitants.
Speed and space are the two big advantages of car-based living. The average commute by public transportation in the United States is forty-eight minutes; the average commute by car is twenty-four minutes. Cars enable mass-produced housing at moderate densities that give ordinary Americans a lifestyle that is extraordinarily opulent by world standards.
But acknowledging the upside of sprawl doesn’t mean that sprawl is good or that American policies that encourage sprawl are wise. The environmental costs of sprawl should move government to put the brakes on car-based living, but American policies push people to the urban fringe. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who liked cities no more than Gandhi did, lives on in policies that subsidize home ownership and highways, implicitly encouraging Americans to abandon cities.
One problem with policies that subsidize sprawl is that car-based living imposes environmental costs on the entire planet. The patron saint of American environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau, was another antiurbanite. At Walden Pond, he became so “suddenly sensible of such sweet beneficent society in Nature” that “the fancied advantages of human neighborhood” became “insignificant.” Lewis Mumford, the distinguished architectural critic and urban historian, praised the “parklike setting” of suburbs and denigrated the urban “deterioration of the environment.”
Now we know that the suburban environmentalists had it backward. Manhattan and downtown London and Shanghai, not suburbia, are the real friends of the environment. Nature lovers who live surrounded by trees and grass consume much more energy than their urban counterparts, as I painfully discovered when, after thirty-seven years of almost entirely urban living, I recklessly experimented with suburban life.