Flickr/lindenbaum

More than $1 trillion, according to a new report.

More and more young people are moving to urban centers because they prefer to live in walkable areas with lots of public transportation options. Still, developers are reluctant to build compact housing using this smart growth approach. But perhaps a new economic case against sprawl can convince these developers to think twice.

Sprawl costs America over $1 trillion a year, according to a new report by LSE Cities and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, because it can increase per capita land consumption up to 80 percent and car use by up to 60 percent. Together these outcomes create social costs that amount to $626 billion a year for people living in sprawling areas and $400 billion for those outside of them, the report estimates.

Economic outcomes from increased land development and automobile use. (LSE Cities/Victoria Transport Policy Institute)

The report argues that sprawl-related land consumption displaces economically-beneficial agricultural lands, and therefore, reduces local agriculture-based business activity. Because people are spread out, governments spend more money to construct longer roads, as well as sewage and power lines, to make sure all residents are covered.

Sprawl also tends to require more driving, and more people in cars means more people spending thousands of dollars on maintenance and gas (first chart below). Obviously, more cars on the road also means more traffic accidents (second chart) and pollution (third):

Internal fixed costs are costs of ownership, internal variable costs are operating costs, and external costs are the costs imposed on other people. Together, they can amount anywhere between $2,000-$4,000 per vehicle annually.  (LSE Cities/Victoria Transport Policy Institute).

That's not to say sprawl has no benefits. Big single-family home in the suburbs definitely provide more space, more privacy, and less noise and air pollution. These areas tend to have less crime and better schools. Developers know this well, as Alana Samuels recently wrote:

Americans want space, they say, and they want backyards and private patios and big closets and places to park their big cars.

But compact urban development doesn't necessarily exclude the construction of single-family homes. The report makes clear that single-family homes and spacious townhouses fit within the confines of a city smart growth plan, too. And although these single-family homes can be expensive to buy, the report also argues that "smart growth" offers a variety of affordable housing types overall, and cuts down on infrastructure and transportation costs.

Developers, are you listening?

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a full parking lot with a double rainbow over it
    Transportation

    Parking Reform Will Save the City

    Cities that require builders to provide off-street parking trigger more traffic, sprawl, and housing unaffordability. But we can break the vicious cycle.   

  2. a map comparing the sizes of several cities
    Maps

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  3. black children walking by a falling-down building
    Equity

    White Americans’ Hold on Wealth Is Old, Deep, and Nearly Unshakeable

    White families quickly recuperated financial losses after the Civil War, and then created a Jim Crow credit system to bring more white families into money.

  4. A woman looks straight at camera with others people and trees in background.
    Equity

    Why Pittsburgh Is the Worst City for Black Women, in 6 Charts

    Pittsburgh is the worst place for black women to live in for just about every indicator of livability, says the city’s Gender Equity Commission.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×