It may not seem like it when you're stuck in traffic on the 110 Freeway, but Southern California is home to some of the least-sprawling metro areas in the country.
That's according to a study out today from Smart Growth America, which attempted to measure the concept of urban sprawl in 221 metro areas nationwide. The study ranked the Los Angeles, Orange County and Santa Barbara regions in the 25 least-sprawling.
The big exception: The Inland Empire, which ranked in the ten most-sprawling.
Despite stereotypes of the region as a group of suburbs in search of a city, the 10 million people jammed into Los Angeles County make it one of the most dense urban areas in the nation. That density means lots of places to work, shop and play, minimizing the need for long car trips.
Add in the region's efforts to beef up transit, along with a general trend toward denser housing development, and the study's author singled out Los Angeles as a surprising anti-sprawl success story.
"Los Angeles has actually densified very substantially," said Reid Ewing, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at University of Utah and the report's author. "They've built rail. There's been a lot of infill development."
But, as Ewing notes, the places that fared best on the sprawl index – which is topped by New York and San Francisco – also tend to have high housing costs.
Therein lies the flip side for Los Angeles: People fleeing high housing costs have moved to the outer suburbs such as the Inland Empire. That region trailed only Atlanta and Nashville among the most sprawling large metro areas in the U.S.
That's a function of the way Riverside County developed, said Rick Willson, chair of the department of urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona. Much of it has wide streets, relatively few job centers and vast residential areas separate from commercial and industrial uses. Inland Empire cities such as Ontario and Riverside are trying to guide future development toward mixed uses and more walkable streets, but that takes time.
"Once you have this set pattern in place it's very hard to change it," Willson said. "Over 50 years, it'll be re-done."
Orange County has evolved over recent decades into a denser area, as jobs have clustered in places such as Irvine and Anaheim. The Orange County region ranked tenth in Smart Growth America's ranking, which was based on 2010 census data.
Los Angeles has improved too, said Martin Wachs, professor emeritus of urban planning at UCLA. While transit and zoning policies have helped somewhat, he said, most of the growth in density boils down to economics.
"It's largely market-driven," Wachs said. "It's driven by changing demographics and tastes in what people want."
More people – especially young professionals and empty-nesters – are placing a premium on living in walkable places, he notes. Developers are responding to that demand, building more housing in those neighborhoods and making them denser.
The demand also drives up the cost of housing, and that risks pushing more lower-income residents out to the sprawling fringes.
Another factor not mentioned in Smart Growth America's report, Wachs noted, is schools. Many of those young professionals who today live in dense city neighborhoods will eventually move to more sprawling suburbs for better public schools. Any discussion of smart growth, Wachs said, ought to include affordable housing and education just as much as transit and density.
"Those things are all equally important to quality of life," he said.