Suburban sprawl means less farmland and reduced agricultural productivity, dirtier air and water, and more traffic congestion, a new study says, and it all adds up to increased costs of about $1 trillion a year in the U.S.
The study by The New Climate Economy is an attempt to quantify the economic costs of sprawl (“dispersed, automobile-oriented, urban-fringe development”) while pointing out the benefits of compact, mixed-use building (“smart growth”).
“Sprawl provides various benefits, but these are mostly direct benefits to sprawled community residents, while many costs are external, imposed on non-residents,” the report says. “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., indicating that smart growth policies which encourage more efficient development can provide large economic, social and environmental benefits.”
In other words, sprawl can be great, if expensive, for people who live there, but not so great for people who don’t.
Higher transportation expenses, less mobility
Living in the suburbs inevitably means a lot more driving, and less walking, and that exacts a surprisingly high price.
Vehicle costs alone approach $3,000 a year, before adding costs associated with travel time, vehicle operation, parking, air pollution, water pollution, and traffic accidents.
Traffic death rates are two to five times as high in sprawled urban areas as they are in “smart growth communities.”
And because suburban development discourages walking, cycling, and public transportation, the authors said, it tends to impose “particularly large burdens on physically, economically and socially disadvantaged people.”
“To the degree that sprawl concentrates poverty in urban neighborhoods, it tends to exacerbate social problems such as crime and dysfunctional families,” it continues.
The authors said costs cited in the report reflect conditions in North America, but were transferable to developing countries.
“Although many of these costs are lower in absolute value in developing countries, due to lower wages and property values, they are probably similar relative to incomes and regional economies,” the report says. “As a result, smart growth policies that create more compact communities can provide substantial economic, social and environmental benefits in both developed and developing countries.”