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Do Americans Love Sprawl?

To hear David Brooks tell it in his latest New York Times column, Americans simply aren’t buying the urban-planner propaganda that says that walkable cities with good public transit are attractive places to live. In fact, when a Pew survey asked people to name the U.S. cities in which they’d like to live, they showed a clear preference for the sprawling, car-centric cities that have grown up in the wide-open spaces of the West. You know, cities like San Francisco, or Portland.

Wait a sec: Portland? Car-centric? It’s worth taking a second look at the Pew survey’s list of the ten most desirable cities that Brooks cites as his main evidence of America’s enduring preference for suburbia. As it turns out, they're not nearly as sprawling as Brooks imagines.

The top ten cities, in order of popularity, are Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando, Tampa, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio. As Brooks correctly points out, seven out of these ten are in the West. But back in 2002, when the Smart Growth Alliance produced a sprawl index that attempted to quantify the level of sprawl in 83 U.S. cities, only two of Brooks's ten most popular cities–Tampa and Orlando–were in the more-sprawling half. Three of them–San Francisco, Portland, and Denver–actually ranked among the fifteen least-sprawling cities in the country.

And many–if not most–of these cities have been going to great lengths over the past few years to give their residents more non-automobile transportation options. Denver, in particular, recently embarked on an ambitious expansion of its light-rail system. In other words, David Brooks has it almost completely backwards. The most popular city in America is also one of the most committed to improving its public transit.

--Rob Inglis