As America lumbers through another one of its periodic oil panics, it’s discouraging to see all the same arguments engaged again. The left wants to reduce demand through onerous taxes and regulation' while the right tries to increase supply by drilling Alaska and the coastal seas, converting coal shale, and embarking on foreign adventures. Everyone agrees on the central premise, though, that we’re going to keep on driving, and we’re going to drive more: fifty per cent more in the next twenty years, according to the latest Congressional projection. It’s impossible to suggest that we modify our use of cars, because in the last fifty years our civilization has become cars--cars and the vast web of roads that they ride on. If we have to heat the earth and raise the oceans, poison the air and seas, ruin our cities and countryside, suffer hundreds of millions of highway deaths and injuries--if we have to go to war to get the gas--then that’s what we’ll do, because that’s what we are. We’re a nation of cars.
Rome wasn’t burned in a day. Things took a turn somewhere, and the empire began to deteriorate at such an incremental pace that its fall was virtually invisible to those who lived through it. To witness both Rome the city of marble and Rome the city of rubble, one would have had to live for four centuries. Between those two points, what could anyone have known, beyond the murky intuition that everything was going wrong?
We do have this advantage over the Romans: we can actually see our civilization from a distance, by flying over it in an airplane. Consider the view on a clear night flight: on the eastern seaboard we now live in a continuous city, popularly called Megalopolis, that stretches from Washington through New York and up to Boston. The same can be said of the California coastline from San Diego through Los Angeles to San Francisco, and again along the southern shore of the Great Lakes from Buffalo through Detroit and Chicago to Milwaukee, with urban spokes connecting Minneapolis to the west, as well as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh to the south. It’s beginning to happen in the south as well, from Richmond through Atlanta to Miami, and along the Gulf Coast from Tampa through New Orleans to Dallas-Fort Worth--once separate cities--now melded together like Wilmington-Philadelphia. Cities like Denver and Phoenix spread a hundred miles across the landscape, each of them the size of Yellowstone, twice the size of the Grand Canyon. And linking all of these together is a new urban form--call them Ribbon Cities--thousands of settlements, from two to ten miles wide and sometimes fifty miles long, meandering through the nation on the backs of our Interstate Highways. The only part of the country, aside from wilderness areas, to still retain a clear distinction between city and country is the depressed farm land of the Midwest.
This grand experiment in urbanizing rural land required an alliance of business and government to bring about. State and federal governments sponsored the revolution by running roads and utilities into much of the country’s farmland. With the new infrastructure in place, commercial interests--oil, automotive, trucking, real estate, warehouse, power, construction, water, sewage, asphalt, concrete, steel, glass, lumber; representing perhaps half of the nation’s GDP--exploited that foundation to convert cheap farm land into valuable urban property. The result is a new suburban civilization that already contains more people than either the cities or the countryside, and which continues to expand, looking to consume what’s left of the nation’s arable land. Given the rate of conversion over the past fifty years, it’s conceivable that all the farmland in America--aside from the five per cent or so required for food--will be turned into low-density urban property by the end of the 21st Century; a vast, low-density, endless city, sprinkled in the east with mountain parks and in the west with desert wilderness; and dotted throughout with clusters of tall buildings, the former cities of another time.
Civilization may be associated with terms like culture, science, and religion, but its foundation lies in trade, which in turn depends on transportation. It began with trading ports, starting for the most part on rivers and gravitating to the seacoast later on. Virtually all the ancient capitals were ports, trading with the world at large by water, inventing new tools like writing to keep track of their accounts. A few oases like Jerusalem and Damascus notwithstanding, this requirement held until the railroads of the nineteenth century made land-locked cities for the first time viable, in a real sense creating such cities as Dallas, Denver, and Salt Lake City. At the end of that century all of the world’s great cities were either water ports or rail ports, and most of the greatest were both.
Because ships and trains are intermittent modes of travel, it’s neither practical nor even possible to disembark before one’s destination has been reached. People and goods travel from port to port or terminal to terminal, and where they land inevitably defines the city center. The land economies of port cities are similar: land prices tend to be highest at the port or terminal, where trade is most convenient, and to diminish as one leaves the center city. This simple economic formula defines all great cities. Since the location of the port determines both the center of the city and the hierarchy of land values surrounding it, a kind of fiscal gravity prevails in port civilizations, where the trading zones evolve toward maximum price and density, while the countryside is left alone to farmers, ranchers, and the wilderness.
Unlike Europe, where aristocratic ownership of both land and trade routes resulted in cartel pricing on farm commodities and subsequent high values for land, the American aristocracy was mercantile: it only controlled the rail and water trade routes in a country where land was plentiful, broadly owned, and cheap enough for the government to give away. Ninety per cent of the population was rural during the Revolution, and even at the end of the nineteenth century some eighty per cent still lived in the country, the vast majority of them subsistence farmers. Although the railroads opened the country to settlement and trade, they also controlled the settlers’ economy through private monopolies of transportation; which translated into notoriously exploitative transport fees. While American cities grew rich in trade and culture, the vast expanses of land between them remained poor, remote, and unexploitable.
It might well have remained this way, but for the invention of the automobile. Cars not only provided a new measure of autonomy, mobility, and freedom; they also spawned a revolution that redistributed the wealth of the United States from its concentration in the nation’s cities to every corner of the hinterlands. It would be hard to overstate the social upheaval that followed in the treads of this machine. Millions of country people could suddenly get to the cities where all of the money was made; while city people were suddenly free to explore an enormous country that was practically free for the taking. The ensuing cross-migration led the majority of Americans to live in cities or suburbs by the beginning of World War II, By the end of the 20th century the percentage had grown to more than ninety per cent.
Once cars and roads improved enough to make them competitive, the system of traveling from port to port or terminal to terminal found itself contending with something entirely new in history: a continuous transportation system. New York is a harbor to a boat and a terminal to a train; and as long as the port and station remain in use the city has geographical anchors to define its core. But to a car New York is a different story. Cars move people, not through ports, but over grids; they can stop anywhere they want to, rendering the very concept of port or terminal obsolete. With no geographic anchors or fiscal gravitation, cities like Dallas or Phoenix don’t really have an exact location; their dynamic centers can shift between any one of thousands of crossroads in a constantly evolving web of corridors, making them strangely rootless regions. Given a bit of time, the section of the grid defining central Dallas could easily drift on the tides of commerce to someplace fifty miles away, taking ‘Dallas’ with it as it goes; just as ‘Los Angeles’ has wandered west to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and appears to be headed now toward Santa Monica and Venice.
While the cities thus lost their centers, the countryside lost its isolation: when ships and trains made the passage from New York through Philadelphia and Baltimore to Washington, for example, they reinforced the hierarchy urban land values at every stop, while the land between them remained a relative wilderness. Making the same trip by car, however, produced the opposite effect: the cities en route became obstacles to the completion of the trip, which had to be somehow circumvented. And the land between them, for the first time, became available at every point en route.
The fiscal gravitation of the port cities then began to work in reverse, toward centrifugal dispersion to the hinterlands. Many explanations have been proffered for the remarkable decline of American cities in the midst of the nation’s great boom of the sixties, but underlying all the social commentary was the simple fact that cars and roads created better investment opportunities in the countryside than the old ones in the cities.
Cities had grown high and beautiful because port systems naturally funnel investments into central urban trading centers. But grid systems turn investment in the opposite direction, toward the cheapest land in driving distance of a trading depot. If the previous practical limit of settlement from the city center was some five miles (an hour on foot or horseback), that was immediately increased with a car to twenty, and ultimately to sixty miles. By the nineteen thirties every major city thus had a ten mile collar of suburbia surrounding it, and by the end of the century most of those collars were thirty to forty miles wide, often containing more people than the cities that they circumscribed. After a while the collars began to develop business and commercial zones of their own, or satellite cities, and these tended to make the core cities superfluous. The hierarchy of land values collapsed as suburban prices exceeded those of the ports; satellite cities spawned their own commuting suburbs built on ever more remote farm land; and the age of sprawl was upon us.
While the cities thus endured suburbanization, the industrialization of agriculture hit the farms. Mechanization and consolidation pushed virtually all commercial farming to Florida, California, and the Midwest, which together were able to feed the nation on a fraction of the land required before. In every other section of the country rural people gravitated to the cities to find work, leaving their farms to collapse behind them. Rural land became as cheap in the sixties, relatively speaking, as it was in the eighteenth century.
It wasn’t much noticed at the time, but converting all that worthless country land into valuable urban property eventually became our principal business as a nation. To illustrate how it worked, consider what happened some twelve years ago in Haymarket, Virginia, a farm town forty miles west of Washington, D.C., where in 1993 the Walt Disney Company announced a new American History theme park. Haymarket was about eight miles into the country from the outer range of suburbia that then extended to Manassas. Suburban building sites in Manassas, complete with water, sewer, utilities and roads, sold for $200,000 an acre, while farm land in Haymarket cost just $10,000 an acre. If the government provided the infrastructure of roads, water, schools, and utilities, Disney intended to buy some five thousand acres of farmland, install a theme park on a hundred acres in the middle as a magnet, and then sell the rest at suburban rates in a classic leap-frog development scheme. Had everything gone according to plan (it didn’t) the company would have made a billion dollars in land alone. Those are the kind of returns that have changed the face of the nation in the past fifty years.