Stymied By Sprawl

A recent study (pdf) ranked Atlanta as the nation’s most sprawling metro area. New York, unsurprisingly, was the most compact:

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Sarah Goodyear explains why the report matters:

Residents of more sprawling regions were stuck with fewer transportation options and higher combined costs of housing and transportation, despite higher housing costs in more compact cities. An average household in the San Francisco metro area (a national leader in terms of density, with a score of 194.1) spends 46.7 percent of its budget on combined housing and transportation. In Tampa, Florida, which scores a dismal 98.5, that proportion is 56 percent.

Residents of compact metro areas also have longer, healthier lives, with lower BMIs, lower blood pressure, lower rates of diabetes, and fewer car crash fatalities. An average American in a more compact county has a life expectancy three years longer than one in a less compact county. All these are observations of correlation, not causation. But they tell a remarkably consistent story. Not only can cities limit sprawl through the use of specific policy tools, but the benefits for their citizens of doing so are real and life-changing.

Haya El Nasser adds, “One of the most striking findings is that living in more compact and connected metro areas can help low-income children get ahead financially as adults”:

“A child [in a low-sprawl area] born in the bottom 20 percent of the income scale has a better chance of rising to the top 20 percent of the income scale by the age of 30,” said Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and the lead researcher. For example, the probability that an individual in the Baton Rouge, La., area – the sixth worst in terms of sprawl – will move from the bottom to the top income bracket is 7.2 percent, compared with 10.2 percent in Madison, Wis., the least sprawling among medium-size metro areas. “My explanation at this point is that a low-income person living in a very compact area has a much better access to jobs” and the city is “more likely to be well-integrated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bill Bradley notes that “one metropolis largely associated with gridlock traffic as a way of life has, in some ways, reversed the trend”:

We’re talking about Los Angeles, where the freeway can often be confused for a parking lot. In 2002, Smart Growth America ranked L.A. 45 out of the 83 metro areas it studied. Twelve years later the city has jumped to 21 out of 221 on the sprawl index. How, exactly, has L.A. improved its sprawl ranking?

Anecdotally, people might talk about the resurgence of its downtown. But lead researcher Reid Ewing told reporters something different: It’s due to a multi-prong approach, not coffee shops. “Los Angeles has actually densified very substantially,” Ewing said during a press call. “They’ve built light rail, and there’s been a lot of infill development.” With light rail generally comes some economic development – whether it’s mixed-use, office buildings or new housing – and L.A. has been proactive about not just density, but also displacement. Developers are allowed to build higher than the city’s height limit if they make affordable housing a part of their project.

(Chart via Smart Growth America’s “Measuring Sprawl 2014”)