Sprawl: The Lower Cost of Living
By Wendell Cox
(Reprinted from Environment & Climate News)
The most recent anti-suburban study is “Driven to Spend,” from the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), which analyzes the annual costs of personal transportation using US Department of Labor Consumer Expenditure data for 1998 and US 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 extent of transportation cost per household (see STPP Figure 8, http://www.transact.org/Reports/driven/driven.htm --- suggest recreation of it in this paper). Analysis of STPP’s degree of sprawl” index by category shows that the metropolitan areas with the greatest sprawl have average transportation expenditures that are approximately $1,300 higher annually per household than in the metropolitan areas with the least sprawl (Table, section 1). These more compact (least sprawling) metropolitan areas have average annual transportation expenditures per household that are nearly 19 percent below that of the metropolitan areas that sprawl the most.
But like so many studies that seek to demonstrate the purported ills of America’s dispersed urban development pattern, “Driven to Spend” tells only part of the story --- and a very small part at that. For example, housing expenditures tend to be lower in the more dispersed metropolitan areas. The most sprawling metropolitan areas have annual housing (shelter) expenditures per household that are $2,400 less 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 (Table, section 2). Recreation of the STPP chart to show housing expenditures shows virtually the opposite relationship as in the STPP transportation chart (Figure at end of paper).
Indeed, the lower cost of housing in the more sprawling metropolitan areas more than offsets their disadvantage in transportation expenditures (Table, section 3).
Even the expenditures on food tend to be lower in the most sprawling metropolitan areas (Table, section 4). Indeed, the expenditures on food by themselves more than offset the higher transportation expenditures in the most sprawling metropolitan areas. Perhaps food expenditures are so high in the least sprawling areas because “big box” supermarkets have been somewhat slow to expand into the dense inner cities that are the core of the most compact metropolitan areas. Households in the least sprawling urban areas spend nearly 14 percent more than in the least sprawling areas on transportation, shelter and food (Table, section 5)
Not surprisingly, where housing costs are higher, home ownership can be expected to be lower. In the most sprawling metropolitan areas, home ownership was 70 percent in 1990, well above the 57 percent in the most compact areas (Table section 6).
Finally, in the more sprawling metropolitan areas people spend less time commuting to their jobs. In 1990, the workers in the most sprawling metropolitan areas spent more than 30 hours less time commuting to and from work than in the least sprawling areas (Table, section 7). The commuting time figure for the most sprawling metropolitan areas is skewed higher because of the inclusion of Atlanta. Atlanta has only modest traffic volumes, but because it has the least effective surface arterial system of any growing metropolitan area experiences some of the nation’s worst traffic congstion (Internet: http://www.publicpurpose.com/ut-atl0006.htm). Even so, commuters in the most compact metropolitan areas spend the equivalent of four additional days annually commuting to work compared to those in the most sprawling areas.
All of this is to suggest that, despite its failings, the less dense American metropolitan areas have a high quality of life. Yes, transportation expenditures may be higher than in the more compact metropolitan areas. Moreover, 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. All of which is to say that there is more to life than the cost of transportation.
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