Is Sprawl a Consumer Choice or a Government Mandate?
A market-based look at one of the side effects of urbanization and its tangled roots
For all the people in cities who are hurt by high home prices, the biggest group of victims may be people outside city lines. Many of them, unable to afford urban living, must “drive until they qualify” for suburban housing. They contribute to what is pejoratively called “sprawl”, a development pattern thought to create fiscal and environmental costs. In this piece I’ll unpack the meaning of sprawl, and its hidden causes.
Sprawl as a product of market demand
There are various definitions of sprawl, but it is popularly understood as a development pattern that is car-reliant, has low population densities, and lots of space between homes. While sprawl is generally spoken of as a suburban phenomenon, rural areas are also technically sprawl.
So, it is unsurprising that Americans like it. We were founded as a rural nation, an undeveloped “New World” that rejected the industrialized norms of Europe. We grew on agrarian principles, chasing a Jeffersonian ideal of mass land ownership and individuality over collectivism.
That is changing somewhat, as the rural share of the population declines and the metro share increases. But these transplants aren’t all occupying city cores; suburban areas have faster growth rates than urban ones, a trend documented by economist Jed Kolko. 81% of U.S. housing stock is single-family, and about that same percentage of consumers state a preference for single-family homes when surveyed. It seems, then, that there’s a revealed preference in America for yards and white picket fences that dates back to the nation’s roots.
Sprawl as a product of government engineering
The flip side is that many people don’t actually want to live in sprawl. It is the only place they can afford a decent sized home and quality of life, and they can afford it only because they’re not paying its full costs. Sprawl, after all, is a massive distortion: the result of long-time government policies that both outlawed and destroyed cities, while subsidizing the suburbs.
The way urban living is outlawed has by now been well-documented: various zoning regulations make it illegal to build urban-style development. The way urban living has been “destroyed” refers mostly to post-WWII urban renewal policies. The federal government allocated money to local governments to build roads, parking lots and public housing. To create space, governments used eminent domain to condemn existing, well-functioning neighborhoods. Some of them, such as Greenwich Village in Manhattan or Fells Point in Baltimore, were spared due to activist pushback. But there would be far more of these areas left if not for urban renewal. Even today, cities, with a fair bit of frequency, condemn neighborhoods to widen these original highways or build new infrastructure. Collectively, these policies that outlaw or destroy urban development have created a nationwide “urbanism shortage”, making the model expensive and forcing people out to suburban areas that actually build housing.
The second factor is that suburban areas are then subsidized by the government, making them cheaper places to live than they otherwise would be. Michael Lewyn, a Touro College Law professor, wrote a book on how thoroughly sprawl subsidies are baked into American land-use policy. In Government Intervention and Suburban Sprawl: The Case for Market Urbanism, he claims that sprawl partly resulted from local and federal policies.
“Defenders of suburbanization argue that it is a result of consumer choice, and that what the market has put together, government should not tear asunder, but in fact, sprawl is a result of a variety of government policies, such as highway spending that facilitated suburban commuting, school residency requirements that force city residents into poverty-packed public schools while creating homogeneously affluent suburban schools, and federal housing policies that favored suburbanites over city residents.”
Still today, the Federal Housing Administration overwhelmingly favors single-family over multi-family housing in its insurance protocols. Roads at all governmental levels cost $181 billion annually, according to 2017 figures, a figure not fully covered by tolls and gas taxes. And there are subsidies to extend other infrastructure outward, such as water, sewer and electrical lines. So even if someone wants to live in sprawl—and checks that box on a consumer survey—that “revealed preference” is somewhat academic, since they’re not being forced to pay its full cost. Instead they enjoy a system where costs are socialized, making sprawl the opposite of the self-reliant agrarianism it’s framed as.
Many people who live in sprawl do because, to reiterate my point, it’s their only choice. San Francisco is an extreme example of how things work nationwide. A mix of restrictive city zoning and growth containment in adjacent counties means exurbs like Dublin are the fastest-growing cities in the Bay Area. But many of the people living there still commute into San Francisco.
This is costly to households in time: the average one-way commute in metro San Francisco is 32 minutes, 4th-highest in the nation. The Bay Area leads the nation in super commuters—people who spend 3+ hours commuting each workday. The sprawl lifestyle is also costly to families monetarily. According to the Department of Labor, the average annual cost of car ownership is $9,576, and living in suburbs means having to own a car. The longer the commute, the higher those costs.
Beyond just individual households, sprawl is costly for society. Many “cost of sprawl” studies have pointed out what seems intuitive: that it’s not fiscally pragmatic to extend infrastructure to remote places covered by few heads. And environmental costs are high for a development pattern that forces auto dependence and prevents resource sharing (note the list of studies that Market Urbanism Report research staffer Ethan Finlan compiled on this Facebook file).
With that stated, free-market advocates generally defend people’s right to sprawl. It contributes to the affordable housing stock, adds to urban agglomerations, and some of its costs can be reduced through pro-market environmental reforms. But sprawl shouldn’t be the singular option forced by government. That’s been the multi-decade U.S. status quo, and is a mistake we all pay for.