Urban Planning

Urban Sprawl is Not Financially Unsustainable nor is Bankrupting Governments : urbanplanning

I would preface by saying that I am personally not a big fan of “urban sprawl” and have no desire to live that kind of lifestyle. That said I strongly oppose policies that seek force higher residential on people that don’t necessarily want it. One argument used to bolster policies that are designed to restrict urban sprawl is that sprawl is economically unsustainable, however real world evidence shows that this isn’t the case.

There is some evidence of higher infrastructure costs associated with urban sprawl, but this does not necessarily make urban sprawl uneconomical. From Todd Litman’s own Cost of Sprawl study we see some degree of higher infrastructure costs. All the other so-called “costs of sprawl” are simply costs of cars and car ownership.

From: Analysis of Public Policies that Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Sprawl

“For example, this analysis indicates that sprawl increases annualized infrastructure costs from $502 per capita in the smartest growth quintile cities up to $750 in the most sprawled quintile cities.”

So while there is a cost premium, a few hundred extra dollars per person per year would not render sprawl economically unviable nor would it bankrupt governments.

All the other costs from the study are simply the costs of cars and roads.

Even if you substantially increased residential and employment densities, and substantially reduced driving, you would still have people who drive and you would still need roads for buses, trucks, delivery vehicles, police vehicles, fire vehicles and emergency vehicles. Hong Kong, for example, has some of the lowest car ownership in the world, but they still have cars and roads.

Most of the costs, whether external or internal are merely the cost of cars and car ownership.

From “Putting People First”, by Wendell Cox

“Nearly 90% of the cost is attributable to personal vehicle use, and is based on a fixed cost per mile differential between the Most Compact (densest) quintile of US urban areas and the four quintiles that are less dense.”

You could argue that denser development reduces driving, but job densities have more effect on transit use and therefore driving than does residential densities. Places with higher residential densities tend to have higher job densities as well.

This paper, “Making the Most of Transit: Density, Employment Growth, and Ridership around New Stations”, https://www.ppic.org/publication/making-the-most-of-transit-density-employment-growth-and-ridership-around-new-stations/

“Looking across all metropolitan areas in the United States, those with higher density have higher transit ridership, but the magnitude of the relationship between employment density and transit ridership is twice as large as that between residential density and transit ridership. Furthermore, metropolitan areas where employment is more centralized in downtowns have higher transit ridership, even after taking residential and employment density into account. At the neighborhood level, transit ridership is higher both among residents of a Census tract where tract residential density is higher and among workers in a Census tract where tract employment density is higher. And again, the relationship is slightly stronger for workers and employment density.”

“Accordingly, employment densities at trip destinations affect ridership more than residential densities at trip origins”

This paper, “New Open-Source Analyses of Transit Job Access and Transit Ridership”, found a very strong relationship between transit ridership and employment density. https://ncst.ucdavis.edu/research-product/new-open-source-analyses-transit-job-access-and-transit-ridership

“Converting that association into an elasticity, if the number of jobs accessible within 30-minutes were to increase by 1 percent, on average stop-level ridership would increase between 0.6 to 0.8 percent.”


The 2000 Rutgers university study puts the cost of sprawl at a capital cost of 11,000 dollars per unit, which would only be a few dollars per square foot. This cost could be covered by a modest increase in developer fees. Places with very high developer fees would actually be making a profit from it. This cost is comparing dense greenfield development with low density greenfield development. In fact infill development may have higher infrastructure cost than either low density or high density greenfield development

From: Regulation for Revenue: The Political Economy of Land Use Exactions

“the cost of creating an additional unit of sewage or water-carrying capacity may be much higher than the unit cost of existing capacity if the old sewage or water lines must be dug up and replaced with larger ones.”


Another study shows that sprawl does have higher infrastructure costs, but only modest costs

From Fiscal impacts of sprawl:


“From a policy perspective, these results suggest that the median urban county area could experience a decrease in per capita expenditures by encouraging more compact development patterns. However, the practical effects are modest.”

Modest meaning not enough to impact finances that much

We also have to consider the costs of unaffordable housing, I don’t believe denser housing is unaffordable, but places with growth boundaries have unaffordable housing. Growth boundaries make all housing unaffordable. The cost in terms of greater welfare spending, greater homelessness and so forth. This is a case where the cure is worse than the disease. Homelessness isn’t purely affordable housing, but it is connected.

California will spend 1 billion on homelessness.


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