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Sprawl is Real, and It’s Here

April 10, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Conservative apologists for sprawl try to deny that it's even a real phenomenon, some even draping dismissive quotation marks around the word. Around here, it's a right-wing obsession to blast the Metropolitan Council's development policies, saying they will herd unwilling suburbanites into teeming, crime-ridden cities.

Fortunately, Smart Growth America has just debunked these notions with empirical evidence that puts the lie to the Met Council's supposed iron-fisted rule. Its landmark report, "Measuring Sprawl and its Impact," places the Twin Cities at No. 147 out of 221 U.S. metro areas for sprawl, meaning we're in the spread-out top third of the nation's most inefficient and edge-subsidized regions.

That's a league with Dallas, Indianapolis and Houston, although a lot better than the nation's worst Riverside, Calif., North Carolina's Greensboro and Raleigh and sprawl icon Atlanta.

Who's at the compact head of this list? So-called legacy cities New York and San Francisco, followed within shouting distance by surprising newer boom towns such as No. 8 Miami, No. 21 Los Angeles and No. 39 Las Vegas. But even smart growth model Portland, Ore., managed only a No. 80 ranking, joined in the middle third by Washington, D.C., Denver, Salt Lake City, Des Moines and foreclosure-crisis capital Cape-Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.

Although Smart Growth America clearly advocates for more traditional, fiscally responsible development, this was no slipshod study that cooked the results. Three years in the making by university researchers and a Smart Growth staffer, it analyzed each metro on four population-adjusted factors: residential density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network.

It also coined a quantitative definition of sprawl -- "the process in which the spread of development across the landscape outpaces population growth." -- and identified four major dimensions of it:

  • A population that is widely dispersed in low-density development.
  • Rigidly separated homes, shops and workplaces.
  • A network of roads marked by huge blocks and poor access.
  • A lack of well-defined, thriving activity centers.

"Most of the other features usually associated with sprawl -- the lack of transportation choices, relative uniformity of housing options or the difficulty of walking -- are a result of these conditions," the authors added.

Given that many people have "voted with their feet" to live in this kind of place, sprawl supporters wonder what's wrong with any of that. Isn't it a simple matter of free-market choices of more wide-open spaces? It's the American way: Don't fence me in.

Not so fast.

According to Pamela Blais' 2010 book, "Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy and Urban Sprawl," massive hidden subsidies -- suburban welfare -- shift costs from inefficient land-intensive development to those who choose the compact kind.

As summarized by Virginia-based policy and infrastructure blogger James A. Bacon, Blais argues that "the system for pricing public goods such as roads, water, sewer, electricity and public services bears little relationship to the cost of providing these services ... with the result that a tangled skein of hidden subsidies incentivizes low-density development ... These invisible subsidies work at cross purposes to the regulations [such as the Met Council's]. As it turns out, developers follow the dollar."

Now there's a big surprise.

"Everyone thinks sprawl is the invisible hand of the market," Bacon quotes Blais. "It's a highly distorted market ... Let's remove the distortions and you'll get a different development pattern."

Bacon also cites author E.M. Risse's "The Shape of the Future," which argues that prices of public infrastructure and service do not reflect their "location-variable costs." Instead, they typically are applied uniformly across a region, giving an implicit subsidy to sparser development. This is true for water, sewer, natural gas, electricity, land-line telephones, broadband internet, cable TV, postal service, garbage collection, recycling and snow clearance, as well as streets and roads.

Even mortgage lending policies favor sprawlers, Bacon notes. Loan standards include car loans as debt but don't consider auto operating costs that are higher on the edge of development -- one reason why so many foreclosures plagued distant subdivisions. And this imbalance can't be rectified with transit service because sprawl lacks the population density to make it economically feasible.

But the curse of sprawl goes beyond cold economics. More driving in sprawl fosters more fatal crashes and pollution emissions, plus poorer health from dirtier air and less physical activity like walking. Sprawled places also produce less social mobility.

Despite all this, right-wingers keep defending sprawl, probably because of a tunnel-vision focus on liberty. A 2011 Heritage Foundation white paper insisted that smart growth policies are bad because they "impede development and economic growth," "undermine individual choice," "discriminate against lower-income Americans" and force people to "give up their cars in favor of subways, trolleys, buses, and bicycles."

What's worse, Heritage's polemicists said, it's all based on interference by big government and, worse yet, policies of the biggest government of all, the United Nations. Heavens!

Bradley Heard at Greater Greater Washington neatly rebuts these overheated alarms.

"The fact is, all development rights depend on big government," he writes, noting that government zoning keeps commercial activity out of greenfield residential developments, and government builds and maintains roads, schools, utilities and sewers to serve them. "And who pays for all of that?" he adds. "That's right: 'We the People' do."

Especially, it turns out, the folks living in those hated compact communities.

"Both sprawl and smart growth require government intervention, but only one saves taxpayers money, improves public health and reduces environmental impact," concludes Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog

Despite the price penalty, there's been a clear trend back to traditional compact development, both nationally and in the Twin Cities. "I live downtown and buildings are sprouting up all around us," University of Minnesota urban scholar Will Craig told the Star Tribune. "My sense is it's all about not wanting to spend two hours a day on the freeway rather than hanging out at a brewpub. It's sort of a case of: 'What Metropolitan Council?!' "

And if we get the prices right on everything that promotes sprawl, big government intervention will hardly matter -- not even the small, unavailing efforts of our little Met Council.

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  • Mike Downing says:

    April 14, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    Urban sprawl is logical and rational for young families. Young families are rewarded by moving to suburbs. They get more house & land for their money and pay less in property taxes. Why pay more for less?