Airway smooth muscle (ASM) extends from the trachea throughout the bronchial tree to the terminal bronchioles. In utero, spontaneous phasic contraction of fetal ASM is critical for normal lung development by regulating intraluminal fluid movement, ASM differentiation, and release of key growth factors. In contrast, phasic contraction appears to be absent in the adult lung, and regulation of tonic contraction and airflow is under neuronal and humoral control. Accumulating evidence suggests that changes in ASM responsiveness contribute to the pathophysiology of lung diseases with lifelong health impacts. Functional assessments of fetal and adult ASM and airways have defined pharmacological responses and signaling pathways that drive airway contraction and relaxation. Studies using precision-cut lung slices, in which contraction of intrapulmonary airways and ASM calcium signaling can be assessed simultaneously in situ, have been particularly informative. These combined approaches have defined the relative importance of calcium entry into ASM and calcium release from intracellular stores as drivers of spontaneous phasic contraction in utero and excitation-contraction coupling. Increased contractility of ASM in asthma contributes to airway hyperresponsiveness. Studies using animal models and human ASM and airways have characterized inflammatory and other mechanisms underlying increased reactivity to contractile agonists and reduced bronchodilator efficacy of β2-adrenoceptor agonists in severe diseases. Novel bronchodilators and the application of bronchial thermoplasty to ablate increased ASM within asthmatic airways have the potential to overcome limitations of current therapies. These approaches may directly limit excessive airway contraction to improve outcomes for difficult-to-control asthma and other chronic lung diseases.