Study: Annual Cost of Sprawl in America Adds Up to $4,500 Per Person

Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, helping account for the increased total costs. Image: New Climate Economy.
Those living in sprawling areas require more road infrastructure, which is just one aspect of the cost of sprawl. Graph: New Climate Economy

A new study confirms what we already know too well: Sprawl is expensive. The New Climate Economy’s latest report [PDF] attempts to put a figure on it and it’s pretty staggering: more than $1 trillion a year nationwide.

That figure accounts for higher costs to individuals and communities associated with sprawling development patterns, including transportation infrastructure, less efficient city services, increased pollution, greater vehicle expenses, more traffic collisions, and reduced health outcomes.

In order to arrive at those figures, researchers separated U.S. communities into five groups, based on how relatively sprawling they were. At one end of the spectrum, where development was most dense, there were about 9.5 residents per acre. The third quintile represented average U.S. housing density, while the fifth was the most sprawling, at less than two residents per acre.

Researchers compared the costs borne by those in the most sprawling communities to those in the least sprawling. Existing studies estimating the increased costs of sprawl were used as the basis for the economic comparisons. For example, they found that infrastructure costs per capita were $502 in the smart growth quintile but $750 per capita in the most sprawling. The report also estimates that those living in the most sprawling areas spend an additional $5,000 per year on vehicle costs compared to those in the most compact.

Image: New Climate Economy
This chart lists and quantifies the external and internal costs of driving. Image: New Climate Economy

The upshot is that sprawl costs America an astounding $4,500 annually per capita. Of those costs, about $2,500 are borne by consumers — like car maintenance or higher tax bills. Another $2,000 or so is external — costs to society — like increased air pollution, or reduced economic mobility.

Researchers also discussed some possible benefits from sprawl, like lower land costs and bigger yards, but noted that they mostly accrue to people who live in sprawling areas and may be offset largely by negative impacts on those who don’t.

Authors note that the report may underestimate the costs of sprawl because it does not attempt to quantify some negative outcomes, like reduced open space, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, or reduced economic productivity, though many researchers consider those costs important.

In light of the findings, New Climate Economy suggests some specific fixes that can help communities promote smart growth and save money. They recommend communities eliminate minimum parking requirements. They also recommend imposing impact fees on sprawling development that can help the public recover some of the shared costs of sprawl.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development

|
How much more does it cost the public to build infrastructure and provide services for sprawling development compared to more compact neighborhoods? A lot more, according to this handy summary from the Canadian environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity. To create this graphic, the organization synthesized a study by the Halifax Regional Municipality [PDF] in Nova Scotia, […]

Sprawl and the Cost of Living

|
Cross-posted from City Observatory.  Over the past three weeks, we’ve introduced the “sprawl tax”—showing how much more Americans pay in time and money because of sprawling urban development patterns. We’ve also shown how much higher the sprawl tax is in the US than in other economically prosperous countries, and how sprawl and long commutes impose […]

How Sprawl Got Detroit Into This Mess

|
It wasn’t de-industrialization that bankrupted Detroit, wrote Paul Krugman in a New York Times column yesterday. If that was all there is to it, then how do you explain the fact that Pittsburgh, once so dependent on the steel industry, is now recovering? No, what brought Detroit to this low point, more than the loss […]

Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

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