Policies That Encourage Sprawl

Posted by Content Coordinator on Wednesday, March 25th, 2015



This report investigates evidence that current development policies result in economically excessive sprawl. It defines sprawl and its alternative, “smart growth,” describes various costs and benefits of sprawl, and estimates their magnitude. It identifies policy distortions that encourage sprawl. It discusses factors to consider when determining the optimal amount and type of urban expansion for various types of cities. It discusses the implications of this analysis for rapidly urbanizing countries. It identifies potential policy reforms that could result in more efficient and equitable development patterns, and describes examples of their implementation. It also discusses criticisms of sprawl cost studies and smart growth policies.

An abundance of credible research indicates that sprawl significantly increases per capita land development, and by dispersing activities, increases vehicle travel. These physical changes impose various economic costs including reduced agricultural and ecological productivity, increased public infrastructure and service costs, plus increased transport costs including consumer costs, traffic congestion, accidents, pollution emissions, reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health. Sprawl provides various benefits, but these are mostly direct benefits to sprawled community residents, while many costs are external, imposed on non-residents. 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. Although these costs reflect North American conditions, the results are transferable to developing countries.

The world is experiencing rapid urbanization. How this occurs will have immense economic, social and environmental impacts. To help identify optimal urban development policies, this report investigates the costs of sprawl (dispersed, segregated, automobile-oriented, urban-fringe development) and potential benefits of smart growth (compact, mixed, multi-modal development).

This analysis starts by identifying basic physical impacts of sprawl, which include increases in the amount of land developed per capita, and by dispersing destinations, increases in total motor vehicle travel. Compared with smart growth development, sprawl typically increases per capita land consumption 60-80% and motor vehicle travel by 20-60%.

Figure ES-1 Sprawl Resource Impacts

Sprawl has two primary resource impacts: it increases per capita land development, and by dispersing destinations, it increases total vehicle travel. These have various economic costs. This figure illustrates these impacts.

This provides a framework for understanding various economic costs of sprawl, including displacement of agriculturally and ecologically productive lands, increased infrastructure costs, and increased transportation costs including increases in per capita facility costs, consumer expenditures, travel time, congestion delays, traffic accidents and pollution emissions, plus reduced accessibility for non-drivers, and reduced public fitness and health. To the degree that sprawl degrades access by affordable modes (walking, cycling and public transit), these impacts tend to be regressive (they 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. To the degree that it reduces agglomeration efficiencies, increases infrastructure costs, and increases expenditures on imported goods (particularly vehicles and fuel), it tends to reduce economic productivity. Sprawl also provides benefits, but these are mostly direct internal benefits to sprawled community residents; there is little reason to expect sprawl to provide significant external benefits to non-residents.

Figure ES-2 indicates the typical costs of automobile travel under urban conditions, including internal-fixed (ownership), internal-variable (operating), and external (imposed on other people) costs. These total thousands of dollars per vehicle-year.

Figure ES-2 Estimated Urban Automobile Costs

Download full version (PDF): Analysis of Public Policies That Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Urban Sprawl

About the Victoria Transport Policy Institute
The Victoria Transport Policy Institute is an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative and practical solutions to transportation problems. We provide a variety of resources available free at this website to help improve transportation planning and policy analysis. We are funded primarily through consulting and project grants.

About LSE Cities
LSE Cities is an international centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science that carries out research, conferenceseducation and outreach activities in London and abroad. Its mission is to study how people and cities interact in a rapidly urbanising world, focussing on how the design of cities impacts on society, culture and the environment.

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One Response to “Policies That Encourage Sprawl”

  1. Jery Schneider says:

    I wonder what is likely to be the effect of massive internal migrations (south to north) due to global warming making large areas unlivable due to very high temperatures and associated, acute, food and water shortages? How would such migrations effect this approach to city building in the future?

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