California’s Dense Suburbs

Contrary to the narrative favored by environmentalists/urbanists, they are really dense, as this article from New Geography reports.

An excerpt.

Many observers think California urban areas are more geographically expansive (“lower density” or to use the pejorative term, more “sprawling”) then those elsewhere in the nation, especially the Northeast Corridor, which runs from the Washington DC metropolitan area through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Providence to Boston. This obsolete view is a leftover from the pre-automobile city of more than a century ago, when the largest American cities (metropolitan areas) had far higher urban densities, smaller suburban expenses, and no cars. Then, the principal method of urban mobility was walking, though transit had a virtual monopoly on motorized mobility.

During the 1920s, automobiles began to dominate and automobile oriented suburbization had its early beginnings. In 1930 there were 90 motor vehicles in the United States for each 100 households. Now, more than 85% of the 53-major metropolitan area (over 1 million population) residents live in the suburbs (or exurbs), leaving less than 15% in the urban cores, according to the City Sector Model, which differentiates between urban cores and automobile-oriented suburbs (Figure 8). The suburbs are even more dominant in California, with 91 percent of major metropolitan area residents.

Still, there is a widely held view that California’s urban areas are less intensively developed than others around the country, especially in the Northeast Corridor. Indeed, some urban cores resembling the pre-automobile cities remain in the Northeast Corridor. Yet, these urban cores are vestiges of another era, surrounded by suburbs that are nearly as automobile oriented as the suburbs of dispersed metropolitan areas such as Orlando, Phoenix or Portland.

California’s Dense Urban Areas and Suburbs

Population densities have plummeted so much that today Boston’s overall urban density (including its dense urban core) is only 2,200 per square mile, less than one third that of Los Angeles, often seen as the very definition of “sprawl.” Even more remarkable, the Boston urban area covers more land area than Los Angeles, according to the Census Bureau. If Los Angeles were populated at the urban density of Boston, only 3.9 million residents would have been counted in the 2010 Census, instead of the actual 12.1 million.

The Los Angeles urban area, as well as San Francisco and San Jose urban areas are also denser than New York. In 2010, New York had 51 percent more residents, but covered 99 percent more land area. The high suburban density of Los Angeles is illustrated by the photograph above, which is of the Ontario and Upland area, bisected by the San Bernardino Freeway (Interstate 10), approximately 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

This analysis that follows analyzes the urban densities within the principal urban areas of the major metropolitan areas, using the City Sector Model.

Comparison of California Urban Areas to Other Regions

For this analysis, a tailored set of geographical regions has been selected for comparison to “Coastal California,” which includes the Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose urban areas. Because of the concentration of some of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, including four of the transit legacy cities (New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, municipalities that comprise 57 percent of the nation’s transit commuting destinations, but only seven percent of the jobs) the Northeast Corridor is also analyzed. These four metropolitan areas include four of the nation’s six largest downtowns (Central Business Districts). The Northeast Corridor also includes Hartford and Providence.

The other three regions include one that encompasses the entire Midwest as well as three metropolitan areas over the Appalachian Mountains from the Northeast corridor (Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Rochester). Another is the South, but excludes Washington and Baltimore, which are in the Northeast Corridor. The last region is the West, which excludes coastal California though does include Riverside – San Bernardino and Sacramento in California.

Retrieved March 15, 2018 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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