Sprawl and the quality of life

Sprawl and the quality of life
March 1, 2001

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private... (read full bio)

The most recent in a long line of anti-suburb studies is Driven to Spend, from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), which analyzes the annual costs of personal transportation using U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Expenditure data for 1998 and U.S. Census Bureau data for 1990. STPP develops a "degree of sprawl" index and shows in graphic form an apparent relationship between its definition of sprawl and the transportation cost per household.

STPP's "degree of sprawl" index shows the metropolitan areas with the greatest sprawl have annual transportation expenditures approximately $1,300 higher per household than in the metropolitan areas with the least sprawl. (See column 1 of the table, "Transportation Costs.") The more compact (least sprawling) metropolitan areas have average annual transportation expenditures per household nearly 19 percent below that of the metropolitan areas that sprawl the most.

But like so many studies that seek to demonstrate the ills of America's dispersed urban development pattern, Driven to Spend tells only part of the story--and a very small part at that.



Sprawl brings less expensive housing, food

Housing expenditures, for example, tend to be lower in the more dispersed metropolitan areas. Annual housing (shelter) expenditures in the most sprawling metropolitan areas are $2,400 less per household than in the metropolitan areas with the least sprawl. Households in the most compact metropolitan areas pay 36 percent more per household than in the most sprawling metropolitan areas. (See column 2 of the table, "Shelter Costs.") The lower cost of housing in the more sprawling metropolitan areas more than offsets their disadvantage in transportation expenditures (column 3).

Even the expenditures on food tend to be lower in the most sprawling metropolitan areas (column 4)--and those expenditures by themselves more than offset the higher transportation expenditures. Households in the least sprawling urban areas spend nearly 14 percent more than in the most sprawling areas on transportation, shelter, and food (column 5) combined.

And there are other advantages of the more dispersed metropolitan areas. The average household in sprawling communities lives in a larger home, with more rooms per capita. The least sprawling metropolitan areas have 16 percent fewer rooms per capita than the most sprawling areas (column 7). Housing expenditures on a per-room basis show an even larger advantage: the cost per room is more than 60 percent higher in the most compact metropolitan areas than in the most sprawling areas (column 8).

These data are borne out by the experience of Portland, Oregon, where so-called "smart growth" policies have forced housing onto smaller lots, reduced housing competition, and reduced housing affordability by a far greater percentage than in any other major metropolitan area during the last decade.

Not surprisingly, where housing costs are higher, home ownership can be expected to be lower. In the most sprawling metropolitan areas, 70 percent of households owned their own homes in 1990, well above the 57 percent home ownership rate achieved by the most compact areas (column 6).



Sprawl reduces commuting times

Finally, residents of sprawling metropolitan areas spend less time commuting to their jobs. In 1990, the workers in the most sprawling metropolitan areas spent 30 hours less time commuting to and from work than did workers in the least sprawling areas (column 9).

The advantage of sprawling areas would be even greater were it not for Atlanta. Public Enemy #1 for the anti-sprawl movement, Atlanta has only modest traffic volumes, but it also has the least-effective surface arterial system of any growing metropolitan area. It experiences some of the nation's worst traffic congestion. But even with the skewing influence of Atlanta, the data show commuters in the most compact metropolitan areas spend the equivalent of four more days a year commuting to work than do commuters in the most sprawling areas.



Sprawl means higher quality of life

America's less-dense metropolitan areas offer their residents a high quality of life. Yes, transportation expenditures may be higher in the sprawling suburbs than in more compact metropolitan areas. But less time is spent traveling to work, home ownership is greater, and there is more living space per capita in the more sprawling metropolitan areas. Each of these factors may fairly be considered indicative of a higher quality of life.

It is no wonder that from Boston to San Diego, and even from Tokyo to Munich, the trend toward suburbanization continues virtually unabated. As people become more affluent, they seek greater personal mobility, larger living quarters, and more green space. Clearly, there is more to life than the cost of transportation.

Suburbanization, Consumer Expenditures and Traffic
Transportation Shelter Transportation and Shelter Combined Food Transportation, Shelter, and Food Combined Home Ownership Rooms

Per Capita
Shelter Cost

Per Room
Annual Hours Commuting
Annual Cost Compared to "Most Sprawl" Annual Cost Compared to "Most Sprawl" Annual Cost Compared to "Most Sprawl" Annual Cost Compared to "Most Sprawl" Annual Cost Compared to "Most Sprawl" Rate in 1990 Compared to "Most Sprawl" Number of Rooms Compared to "Most Sprawl" Cost Per Room Compared to "Most Sprawl" Number of Hours Compared to "Most Sprawl"
Most Sprawl (1.00 & over) $7,189 0.00% $6,790 0.0% $13,979 0.0% $4,340 0.0% 418,319 0.0% 70% 0.0% 3.85 0.0% $1,766 0.0% 179.25 0.0%
Greater Sprawl (0.5-0.99) $7,130 -0.8% $7,045 3.8% $14,175 1.4% $5,217 20.2% $19,391 5.9% 64% -8.6% 3.65 -4.8% $1,925 9.0% 174.38 -2.7%
Middle (0.49 to -0.49) $7,021 -2.3% $8,545 25.8% $15,566 11.4% $5,146 18.6% $20,712 13.1% 63% -10.2% 3.56 -7.3% $2,398 35.8% 175.75 -2.0%
Less Sprawl (-0.50 to -0.99) $6,350 -11.7% $9,127 34.4% $15,848 13.4% $4,907 13.1% $20,755 13.3% 62% -11.7% 3.48 -9.6% $2,626 48.7% 182.88 2.0%
Least Sprawl (-1.00 & below) $5,843 -18.7% $9,213 35.7% $15,056 7.7% $5,758 32.7% $20,814 13.6% 57% -18.6% 3.22 -16.3% $2,864 62.2% 210.00 17.2%
Notes

• Degree of sprawl figure from Surface Transportation Policy Project.

• Consumer expenditures and home ownership data from U.S. Department of Labor survey, 1998

• Rooms per capita from 1990 U.S. Census

• Annual hours commuting calculated from 1990 U.S. Census data (assumes 225 annual days of commuting).




Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning, and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. He can be reached at 618/632-8507, or by email at enquiries@demographia.com.




For more information . . .

on the benefits of personal mobility, see Heartland Policy Study No. 95, "The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine," released on June 22, 2000. An executive summary and the full text of the study are available on the Internet, in both HTML and Adobe Acrobat's PDF format, at www.heartland.org/studies/automobility-sum.htm.

For more information on the Surface Transportation Policy Project's Driven to Spend report, including an executive summary and the full text, visit the STPP Web site at http://www.transact.org/Reports/driven/default.htm.

Wendell Cox

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private... (read full bio)