Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ## Music Filter##
These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: ## Music Filter##

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA
Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Now, let me defend my hometown — Washington, DC — and all the other cities that may have gotten an unfair shake. SGA notes that where it examined metro areas instead of counties, results got a little funky. After all, the DC metro area contains 16 counties, going way outside the city, while Detroit’s metro area includes only Wayne County. The upshot is that the DC area ranks 91st on the index based on its metro area while it ranks sixth based on its county.

But DC is still not anywhere close to placing on this list of most sprawling metros:

Most sprawling metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA
Most sprawling metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Take a close look at those index scores. They mean more than you may think.

For every 10 percent increase in the index score at the metro level, there is:

  • a 4.1 percent increase in economic mobility, or the probability that a child born to a family in the bottom quintile of the national income distribution reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution by age 30
  • a 1.1 percent increase in housing costs relative to income — but a 3.5 percent decrease in transportation costs relative to income. That means the combined costs of housing and transportation fall when communities become more compact. Households in the worst-ranked Hickory, North Carolina, spend a whopping 29 percent of their income on transportation, about two-and-a-half times the percentage San Franciscans spend
  • a 3.9 percent increase in the walk mode share
  • an 11.5 percent increase in the transit mode share

Surprisingly, the higher rates of walking and transit use in compact places don’t seem to translate to a proportional decline in driving. SGA found just a 0.6 percent decline in vehicle ownership and a 0.5 percent decline in driving time for every 10 percent bump in index score.

At the county level, for every doubling in the index score, life expectancy increases by about 4 percent, or about three years.

A whole host of health and safety risks factor into the link between sprawl and life expectancy. For one, the risk of a fatal collision rises with sprawl. “Counties with less sprawl have more car crashes,” the authors write, “but fewer of those crashes are fatal. For every 10 percent increase in the Index, fatal crashes decrease by almost 15 percent.”

Obesity and body mass index, blood pressure and diabetes also rise with sprawl. Air quality worsens.

Communities can change their built environment and all the health and economic indicators that go with it. They can enact zoning codes to encourage mixed use development, like Santa Barbara did. They can promote downtown residency and reinvestment in existing housing stock, like Madison. They can follow Los Angeles’s example and jumpstart development around transit stations, increasing allowable density and reducing parking requirements in those places.

Density isn’t destiny — unless communities do nothing to change.

  • Dan Reuter

    Nothing in the report about federal or state transportation policy that provided highways to access vacant land during a period of sunbelt migration. Local governments did not have the means to channel that growth in a sustainable manner for 40 years. It is an old tired representation of history. Atlanta is a 28 county Census defined region, Detroit one. The report and ranking does a disservice to the good community planning that has occurred by planners and citizens across the U.S.

  • T.E. Shaw

    You don’t seem to understand the purpose of the report. It’s not a history, it’s a contemporary snapshot of where things stand today. And it’s not a disservice to good community planning to point out just how big the legacy of poor planning is.

  • Andareed

    Be careful not to confuse correlation and causation.

  • 94103er

    I hope someday the good citizens of Springfield realize how good they have it. Right now if you take a gander around on foot like I did a few summers ago–Lincoln’s home, the Capitol, and the Dana House are all attractions within walking distance–I guarantee you will feel like a strange alien. No one, and I mean no one who isn’t visibly, desperately poor, walks around there.

  • Vernon6

    There is also county-level data in the report as well.

  • C Monroe

    Detroit Metro area is more than just Wayne county, it is a sprawling 6 counties(Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne) With the core 3 being Oakland, Macomb(on the north of 8 mile) and Wayne(south of 8 mile).

  • Clarence

    I love this.

  • Brandon

    the report uses metropolitan divisions and not either MSAs or urbanized area. among the most sprawling “cities” is Warren, MI a suburb in Macomb County, bordering 8 mile. the report is flawed and all analysis based on it are also flawed. I’m disappointed in Smart Growth America.

  • Brandon

    using metropolitan divisions skews the results. so DC has 16 counties while Detroit has 1? The urbanized area of Detroit covers at least 6 counties. the most sprawling suburbs of Detroit in Oakland and Macomb county are conveniently left out of the analysis making Detroit seem much more compact than it actually is. Furthermore Detroit seems better now, not necessary because its added commercial land use but because its lost residential uses. furthermore the downtown activity center is more prominent because there is so little activity elsewhere.

  • Brandon

    Yes and there is some metro are data as well. Unfortunately the main data presented was metropolitan division, and most analysis on the effects of sprawl use the flawed results.

  • Vernon6

    The point of the report is really about measuring the outcomes of sprawl development, which I think it does pretty well.

  • C Monroe

    I understand and agree with the report. I just have a problem with the different criteria of how some Metro areas are of the whole(Atlanta) and others are divided into smaller metros(Detroit). That is are peeve about the report.

  • C Monroe

    our peeve.

  • Brandon

    you can’t reach solid conclusions if you use inappropriate data. Any analysis on outcomes of sprawl will be incorrect because their measure of sprawl is incorrect. Metropolitan level data is really the only thing that matters for sprawl.

  • Brandon

    If you see the error caused by inconsistency in metro definitions why do you agree with the report?

  • C Monroe

    Okay, the report is flawed, but I agree with the concept behind it. Just needs to be better research, otherwise people like catthink will tear it apart.

  • Alicia

    Just needs to be better research, otherwise people like catthink will tear it apart.

    He hasn’t invaded this site yet, fortunately. (But I wonder how long it will take.)

  • Andrew

    He used to post on Streetsblog (NYC, not sure about USA) in 2009 or so, as garyg.


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