The Cost of Sprawl, Focus on Transit Equity

New research indicates sprawl is costing cities significant money and developers should be focused on building walkable communities through smart growth


What Happened?

New research indicates sprawl is costing cities significant money and developers should be focused on building walkable communities through smart growth approaches.

Economics of Sprawl

A recent study from LSE Cities and the Victoria Transport Policy Institute revealed that sprawl has cost cities across the country a total $1 trillion in economic growth by increasing per capita land consumption up to 80 percent and car use up to 60 percent. Sprawl imposes more than $400 billion in external costs and $625 billion in internal costs annually nationwide. Economic costs associated with sprawl include:
  • Reduced agriculture and ecological productivity
  • Increased public infrastructure and service costs
  • Increased transport costs
    • Consumer costs
    • Traffic congestion
    • Accidents
    • Pollution emissions
    • Reduced accessibility for non-drivers
    • Reduced public health and fitness

Smart growth strategies, on the other hand, encourage more efficient development and land use, which provide economic, social and environmental benefits. Efficient smart growth strategies that can be deployed to counter sprawl include:

  • Improved consumer options
    • Improved walkability, cycling and access to public transit
    • Reduced and more flexible parking requirements and density limits
    • More diverse and affordable housing options
    • Improved public services
  • More efficient pricing
    • Efficient pricing of roads and parking
    • Distance-based vehicle registration, insurance and emission fees
    • Location-based development fees and utility rates
    • Vehicle registration auctions
  • More neutral planning
    • Comprehensive evaluation of all impacts and options during planning
    • Accessibility-based planning, focus on residents not cars
    • Least-cost transport planning allocating resources to alternative modes of transit

According to the research, smart growth policies benefit consumers by improving housing and transport options while offering new ways to save money. These policies are especially beneficial for rapidly growing urban areas making significant investments in infrastructure, mobility, public health and environmental objectives.

Sprawling Jobs

A different report from the Brookings Institute reveals jobs are moving away from city centers as well as from poor and minority suburbs. The number of available jobs within the median commuting distance dropped 7 percent between 2000 and 2012 in the largest U.S. metropolitan cities. This is significant because people who live near ample job opportunities typically enjoy:
  • Higher employment rates
  • Shorter durations of joblessness
  • Better public services
  • More retail options

As more employment centers started to pop up in the suburbs over the past 15 years, city employment declined. However, not all suburbs reported job growth as many low-income cities experienced higher job decline than city centers. Poverty also suburbanized with job growth over the past 10-15, leaving many suburban residents unable to access job opportunities easily. The study found:

  • 61 percent of poor and 55 percent of minority neighborhoods saw a decline in jobs within the median commuting distance
  • Poor and minority suburban neighborhoods lost 17 percent of nearby jobs in the last decade, compared to 7 percent in suburban decline overall

The researchers argue regional planners should invest in better metro-area transit built with equity indicators. When low-income individuals do not have access to public transportation, they spend proportionately more on their commutes then wealthier residents. More equitable transportation options that service low-income residents in all areas can increase economic opportunity.

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