Sign up FAST! Login

Urban sprawl costs the American economy more than $1 trillion annually


Stashed in: Awesome, America!, Uber, Cities, Cities!

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

I have lived happily in the inner city and suburbia, but I think this analysis is a little bit shallow about the necessary relationship between high-density "smart growth" and ugly suburban sprawl. Let's say you live in a dense urban paradise like San Francisco or Manhattan -- quite rare in the US, but let's roll with it -- and do not own a car. You are still going to need toilet paper, toilets, fashionable shoes, bicycle inner tubes, underwear, champagne, etc. Also you will need people to staff the drugstore, movie theater, dive bar, ethnic restaurant, dry cleaner, etc. Increasingly you will desire on-demand services like Uber, Google Shopping Express or Instacart, cooked food delivery, even super green stuff like CSA farm share boxes. Where do you think all these goods and services come from? If you say anything but "sprawl", you are dead wrong.

Sprawl, because those goods and services need to come from somewhere. 

One person's sprawl is another person's goods and services. 

One person's sprawl is another person's warehouses, transportation depots, industrial zones, catering facilities, recycling plants, power generators, water treatment plants, big-box stores for things that take up a lot of room, cheap housing for people with families, even cemeteries. If you look at San Francisco, they explicitly vote against almost all of this within their city limits. That's why places like South San Francisco and Colma have always existed... but now they are also expensive, and all that infrastructure stuff gets pushed further and further out. Like 15 years ago every vet in the Bay Area contracted to dispose of your dead cats with companies in Paso Robles, which I imagined to be nothing but wall-to-wall pet cemeteries -- but now it is home to numerous fancy wineries, like nicer than the ones in Napa or Sonoma! Probably now they have to ship the dearly departed moggies to Lassen County or something! Anyway, I appreciate that urban planners wish we would all live more efficient lives in Hong Kong-like high-rise towers... but all that efficiency does come at a price of its own, which doesn't seem to be reflected in this guy's calculations. In fact he explicitly states, "There is no reason to believe that there are significant external benefits of sprawl (non-residents benefit from increased sprawl) which would offset the substantial external costs" -- meaning that he believes sprawl residents only reap the rewards of big backyards and empty roads, while not giving back anything to the bigger economic ecosystem.

Yeah, it occurs to me while reading what you wrote that San Francisco still actively resists and votes against having all this useful infrastructure within their city limits.

So presumably they have to pay extra to get access to these goods and services since there is additional transportation costs.

The biggest problem of "densification" is that it drastically inflates real estate values. The economic benefit flows primarily to property developers and it is fueled by real estate speculators. Government likes the increases in property taxes. On a balance sheet it all looks like a vastly more efficient enterprise. What really happens is real estate becomes unaffordable to most. Home becomes a postage stamp apartment, usually rented. "Densification" is an excellent means of increasing the wealth of the wealthy, by making a tiny amount of land extremely valuable through the manipulation of zoning bylaws. The cover for all this is "saving the environment" and making "livable cities". It's a joke. At best it's marketing flim-flam. 

Investment in transportation policy and infrastructure is a better means of handling a car-based economy. That said, with the transition to self-driving electric cars, many of the worst problems of the car could be solved. Congestion, pollution and accidents will all be vastly reduced, as will the need for vehicle ownership. Those areas are considered to be the greatest costs associated with sprawl.

Infrastructure in general has been terribly neglected in most North American cities. Money being as cheap as it is right now, now would be a very good time to take on some debt to at least upgrade if not also expand infrastructure. Some places would likely benefit from some sprawl.

You May Also Like: