Back in the early '70s, Congress struggled to pass a national land-use planning law. Each year the bill would fail, caught between boredom on the one hand (who can get excited about planning?) and vitriolic opposition from the John Birch Society (who else?) on the other. The Birchers' letter-writing campaign featured the threat that if the bill passed, the government would one day tell Americans where they could put barbecues in their backyards.

If you happen to live in Southern California, that day has more or less arrived. It has come not because of land-use planning, but because of its absence. Unplanned sprawl has created such terrible traffic, which has in turn produced such awful air, that Southern California is now regulating aspects of daily life that would have seemed Orwellian 20 years ago.

Los Angeles is not alone. Other cities have worse congestion. And anyone contemplating a move to the Sunbelt should note that the Federal Highway Administration says that in 10 years Los Angeles and New York won't even be in the Traffic Top Ten. Dallas, San Antonio, Miami and Charlotte, N.C., will.

Los Angeles didn't even invent self-defeating transportation construction projects. New York did. In "The Power Broker," his masterful biography of Robert Moses, New York's all-powerful highway czar, Robert Caro describes planners' frustration. "Watching Moses open the Triborough Bridge to ease congestion on the Queensborough Bridge, open the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge to ease congestion on the Triborough Bridge and then watching traffic counts on all three bridges mount until all three were as congested as one had been before, planners could hardly avoid the conclusion that "traffic generation" was no longer a theory but a proven fact: the more highways were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour onto them and ... force the building of more highways -- which would generate more traffic and become congested in their turn in an inexorably widening spiral that contained the most awesome implications for the future of New York and of all urban areas. ... Pour public investment into the improvement of highways while doing nothing to improve mass transit lines, and there could be only one outcome. ... Moses' immense new highway construction proposal ... could only make congestion, already intolerable, progressively worse. His program ... was doomed to failure before it began."

The sequence of events is now commonplace. What makes this passage extraordinary is that it describes the 1930s. In a society as innovative and responsive to change as ours generally is, it seems little short of incredible that for half a century we have watched this scenario unfold in city after city and been unable to make this simple mental connection, between where we put houses and where we put jobs, between where we put our public funds and how we will choose to travel.

Left to themselves, developers put new subdivisions where land is cheap, i.e. far from jobs, shopping and where people already are. Then, transportation agencies must build roads to serve them. Spread out, low density development not only depends on highways, it can only be served by them. It not only starts the roads-congestion-more roads treadmill, it makes alternatives in the future vastly more difficult.

There is at least one American city that has untangled this knot. When Portland, Ore. designed its new light rail transit system, it was as part of an explicit strategy to shape metropolitan growth. Oregon had a land-use planning law which made that possible. The investment has been a stunning success. In its first year, the light rail line carried twice the passengers originally projected. Combined with good bus service and aided by limits on downtown parking, the system now carries the equivalent of two new lanes on every road entering downtown. Downtown has added 30,000 jobs without any increase in the number of cars, its share of the regional retail market has grown from 7 percent to nearly 30 percent and the number of days in which air quality exceeds health standards has dropped from about 100 per year to none.

Ask anyone in Portland, and they will tell you that what made this possible was the combination of land-use planning and the transit investment. Transit alone, no matter how well designed or how big the subsidy, is insufficient. They will also tell you that the people in Portland are no different from other Americans. They are Westerners who love wide open spaces as much as the rest of us. They are not more European or less enamored of their cars. In the 1960s Portland was, per capita, more committed to freeways than any other American city. What Portlanders have is a vision of how they want their community to grow, and the means -- a state planning law -- to make it happen that way.

Perhaps Congress never will pass a national land-use law. It may not need to. In the last five years, six states (Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Georgia and Florida) have passed laws similar to Oregon's. Other places like Los Angeles and Phoenix that are trying to direct growth without a state law find the competition among local jurisdictions almost impossible to surmount.

Land-use laws are not a quick fix. A new road makes a more immediate impact. But their fate in the remaining 40-odd state legislatures will in significant measure determine most Americans' future quality of life. More roads will just mean more of the same. The writer, a vice president of the World Resources Institute, writes this column independently for The Post.