Suburbs Still Have Allure, Poll Says

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to growth, Californians appear somewhat mixed up.

A new survey shows that a majority believe that their regions are experiencing problems with traffic congestion, air pollution, affordable housing and population growth. Yet a majority also express satisfaction with their daily commutes to work as well as their housing situations, and they remain largely wedded to a suburban way of life.

In other words, they think that growth is generally a problem, but not in their lives. And many don’t want to change their lives to lessen growth’s impacts.

“We can’t find a lot of evidence that things are at critical stage in their personal lives,” said Mark Baldassare, who directed the survey for the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California.


“I think people are open to the idea of alternatives but are not willing to jump on the bandwagon of smart growth at this point,” Baldassare said. “But they clearly recognize there are some serious problems in the regions in which they live, particularly in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.”

At the same time, he added, “people are really ambivalent about making major changes in public policy or their personal lives.”

The findings, based on a statewide telephone survey of 2,010 adult Californians conducted last month, suggest that sprawl has not yet lost its appeal.

Asked if they would choose to live in a low-density neighborhood where driving is a necessity, 66% said yes. Eighty-six percent said that ideally they would like to live in a single-family detached home.

They were more evenly split on two other questions. Given the choice of living in a mixed-use neighborhood, where they could walk to schools and stores, versus a residential-only neighborhood where they would have to drive to services, 50% picked the residential-only area.

In that vein, 47% said they would choose to live in a large house with a large yard, even if that meant a long commute. Forty-nine percent said they would pick a small house and yard if that gave them a short commute; 4% said they didn’t know which they would pick.

All in all, Californians don’t seem to be rushing to embrace the tenets of sprawl-busting: in-fill construction in developed areas, higher density and public transit. “I think people are open to the idea of alternatives but are not willing to jump on the bandwagon of smart growth at this point,” Baldassare said.

That, he added, “means more of the same until someone comes up with a better vision of how things could work.”


Central Valley residents showed the strongest preference for the big-house, big-yard, long-commute option; those living in the San Francisco Bay Area showed the least.

Bay Area residents used public transit to the greatest extent; 12% rely on it to get to work, followed by Angelenos, at 7%. Overall, half of those surveyed said local government should steer growth to already developed areas, while 44% said growth should be allowed in undeveloped areas to avoid high density and traffic congestion.

One thing they were sure of was that they like ballot-box planning. A hefty 77% said local voters should make local land-use and development decisions at the ballot box.

“There’s really a fundamental polar split on how people see growth in this state,” said Christopher Williamson, a senior analyst with Solimar Research group, a land-use and growth consulting firm in Ventura. “For over 50 years Americans and Californians have -- with complete government and social encouragement -- bought into a suburban lifestyle with the car and the kid and the yard. [Now] they see the government coming along ... saying, ‘We want to change the rules and get you to buy another lifestyle.’ ”