Life in America's suburbs is under attack. In journals ranging from The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and Utne Reader to The American Enterprise and The Weekly Standard, critics of suburbia argue that policies implemented since World War II--from the home-mortgage income tax deduction to subsidies for automobile operation to inflexible zoning laws--have lured Americans away from traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods into soulless suburbs, where a landscape littered with strip malls and tract housing makes it nearly impossible for people to form genuine communal bonds with their neighbors. Contemporary suburbanites are condemned, in the words of the left-leaning L.A. Weekly, to "a future of endless sprawl and equally endless commutes."
To save suburban dwellers from this hellish existence, urban planners have devised massive subway construction projects, controls on the development of neighborhoods with single-family homes, "mixed-use" zoning districts that allow commercial operations to coexist with residences, and "urban growth boundaries" that have made it illegal to build homes or locate businesses on the outskirts of such cities as Portland, Oregon.
Enter Peter Gordon, a professor of planning and economics at the University of Southern California's School of Urban Planning and Development. For nearly three decades, Gordon, along with his USC colleague Harry Richardson, has challenged conventional views about gridlock and sprawl, finding that the data don't match the received wisdom: "Suburbanization" is not an artifact of late 20th-century America but a process that has unfolded as long as people have possessed the means to travel and relocate. Commute times are no longer than they were 15 years ago. Individuals are finding the types of living arrangements they prefer. And while Los Angeles-style sprawl is vilified in the traditional planning literature, as well as in most popular accounts of urban life, Los Angeles has the highest population density of any major metropolitan area in the country.
Gordon, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, has published dozens of articles in popular publications and peer-reviewed journals. He is co-editor of Planning and Markets, a new online publication that focuses on land-use and transportation issues (www~pam.usc.edu). While he may be considered a lightning rod in the planning community, in person he's gentle and patient, hardly the sort of firebrand his heretical views suggest.
REASON Managing Editor Rick Henderson and Adrian T. Moore, director of economic studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, interviewed Gordon at his Brentwood home in March.
Reason: There is a pervasive argument among traditional planners that compact cities built around a traditional downtown are intrinsically good. While cities once developed around transit centers, raw materials sites, or natural harbors, contemporary cities seem to be more the artificial creations of planners. What has happened?
Gordon: Compact cities are archaic forms, and they are not coming back. When you study the economics of location, all the textbook models say a firm wants to locate near the urban core or other advantageous sites, and workers must make their living arrangements so that they are close to their jobs. That may be the way it was once upon a time.
But all these firms have become much more footloose. And they go where the workers want to live. The orientation has flip-flopped. Even manufacturing businesses are no longer locked into specific sites, so they have more locational choices. They want to go where the labor force wants to go. The workers and their families want to live where the land is cheap and the air is clean and the schools are good and there are high amenities and so forth. There's a lot more spatial flexibility than ever before, and the consequences are pretty benign.
People don't have to live near work. They can be near good schools if they want to be without paying the price in longer- duration commutes. If you make travel less expensive, there will be more travel.
Reason: You've shown that the average-duration commute has stayed the same over the past 15 years or so. Why does everyone believe that traffic congestion is getting worse?
Gordon: What's interesting is how little congestion there is. If you take a resident of any large foreign city like Tokyo and transplant him or her to Los Angeles, they think they've died and gone to heaven, because the commutes are less than half, on average, here than they are there. Something like 10 percent of the people nationwide commute more than 40 minutes one way. There is a lot of self-correction going on. For 1995, the average automobile commute in L.A. was 23.5 minutes one way.
People are part of a spontaneous order. I think it's not only pessimistic but even ignorant to believe that people are going to sit tight while their lives go to hell. That's never happened. Even where the commuting distances have increased, the trip durations have not, which means commuting speeds are up. It is the opposite of impending gridlock, and it means people can have their cake and eat it, too.
Reason: So why don't people in Tokyo correct in the same way Angelenos do?
Gordon: Many Japanese choose long train commutes because they have a much smaller scope of trade-offs available. Automobile travel is much more expensive [in Japan]. Land doesn't change hands as frequently. There are all kinds of things standing in the way of the fluidity that we're used to.
Reason: You're a critic of the New Urbanism, which is the hot thing in the planning profession. Here's how Alan Ehrenhalt describes the principles of New Urbanism in Governing magazine: "The automobile, and four decades of building homes, streets and suburbs for the automobile's convenience, were draining American places of the community and intimacy that human beings naturally desire." The New Urbanists claim that people want neighborhoods with tree-lined streets, and parks and shops all within walking distance of homes. What's wrong with that?