Two new studies demonstrate the true costs of sprawl, and attempt to show that if new development was built at higher densities and with proper public transit, billions of dollars could be saved. Yet at the same time, the University of Ottawa’s Sustainable Prosperity org’s report Suburban Sprawl: Exposing hidden costs, identifying innovations notes that there is demand for sprawl, for the suburban home, and that even though the infrastructure and operating costs are considerably higher, the price is often cheaper (the old “drive ’till you qualify” theory). How can this be? In fact, much of the cost of suburban development is in the road system, and it is subsidized by the Federal governments on both sides of the border.
Roads are mostly “are free to use, but they aren’t cheap to build or maintain.” The fuel taxes and license fees don’t begin to cover the costs, and the subsidies for road transport are greater than that for all other forms of transport combined.
This large subsidy to road use is overshadowed by other costs that don’t appear on financial statements: air pollution, climate change emissions, noise, delay from traffic congestion, and losses and injury from collisions. Estimates of these costs range upwards of $27 billion per year. Parking is also often “free” or heavily subsidized. Based on US estimates, the cost in Canada is in the tens of billions of dollars per year.
There is a jazzy infographic summary of the study that links to the original, and while it was written for Canada, it parallels what is happening in the States, and points out that in the end, there is a real cost to that cheaper suburban house:
Suburban households drive about three times more than households close to the city centre. All that extra driving has a big impact on household budgets, family stress, and personal health. Extra car ownership and fuel cancel out much of the household budget savings from lower home prices, bringing the real cost of a suburban house closer to the sticker price of an urban residence.
Meanwhile, Scott Gibson of Green Building Advisor points to another study by The New Climate Economy, “the flagship project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. “It has a mouthful of a name, Analysis of public policies that unintentionally encourage and subsidise sprawl”. It’s executive summary is a mouthful too:
An abundance of credible research indicates that sprawl significantly increases per capita land development, and by dispersing activities, increases vehicle travel. These physical changes impose various economic costs including reduced agricultural and ecological productivity, increased public infrastructure and service costs, plus increased transport costs including consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health. Sprawl provides various benefits, but these are mostly direct benefits to sprawled community residents, while many costs are external, imposed on non-residents. This analysis indicates that sprawl imposes more than $400 billion dollars in external costs and $625 billion in internal costs annually in the U.S.
Emphasis mine; the point is that those suburban benefits are paid for by others, usually the people living in cities already. And sprawl can be very attractive; one can see why people move to the suburbs.
Unfortunately the cycle of sprawl and automobile dependency is self-reinforcing and hard to break. Our cities are being degraded, their infrastructure rotting while new pipes and roads are being built in the suburbs. New schools go up in sprawlville while the city schools fall apart. Everything from federal and state investment to mortgage interest deductibility favors the suburban homeowner.
There are things that could be done; there are many factors that could be considered when looking at new developments. They could be designed at higher densities, plan for multi-modal transportation and for social equity with a mix of housing types, as summarised in this table:
Now I know that one shouldn’t read comments, but on Green Building Advisor they are usually smart and to the point. In this article, the very first comment was about the best Agenda 21 anti-smart growth screed I have read in years:
Herding people into the city and stacking high-rise upon high-rise and making people living like rats with one person crawling over the other. Fence them in and mass transit, no more personal vehicles. No thanks, I’ll pass! I’ve heard this environmental drumbeat before. They (this group of Eco-extremists) want people to live in congested cities, have no cars, use mass transit, live in 500 sq. ft apartment high-rises and basically fence in the HUMANS so that they don’t escape into the rural lands. Fortunately we live in the USA and I can choose to live where I want to. If that means the burbs or some rural place and then drive, that is my freedom, my choice, my life.
Really, we have never said anything about fences. But in essence, planning is no longer about what’s best for the climate or the country, it’s all about me. And anyone who disagrees is an eco-extremist. Which is why things never change.
This feature originally appeared in TreeHugger.