Costs of Sprawl - Part 1

sprawling subdivision on the north side of Santa Fe, New Mexico

   Sprawl is threatening to bankrupt us in more ways than we might realize. Let’s have a look at several of them:

Direct Costs

The US imported 4,289,772,000 barrels of oil in 2010, which at today’s price of $105/barrel is almost half a trillion dollars. Fully one third of our imports come from nations deemed dangerous or unstable. With each “uninstall” attempted on Middle Eastern and African dictators, the instability grows.


until our thirst for oil

decreases, our costs will

continue to rise

   Much of that money goes to nations that don’t really like us all that well... and some downright hate us. So a portion of the half-trillion dollar annual impoverishment of the US gets into the hands of organizations bent on destroying us. How much harm would Osama bin Laden have been able to do without petroleum dollars? And what is the cost, in lives and dollars, of the wars waged as direct or indirect results of petro-dollars getting into the wrong hands?

Sprawl should shoulder much of the blame for this staggering expense. Study after study have shown that per-capita performance is substantially better in the city than in surrounding sprawl. This is no surprise, since sprawl requires us to drive everywhere.

   The half-trillion hemorrhage, unfortunately, is only the beginning. Today, we’ll look at some of sprawl’s toll on city budgets. Later, we’ll continue that discussion and also look at its impact on neighborhoods and individuals.

I lectured yesterday in Santa Fe on some of these issues, and illustrated them with a comparative study of two places. One was a sample of sprawl in the image at the top of this blog post. It was just north of downtown Santa Fe, but it could have been anywhere. Here’s a larger version of the image. It’s a 90 acre slice of sprawl exactly 1/2 mile wide. For comparison purposes, I took the exact same area and laid out a prototypical neighborhood based on New Urbanist principles. Note: This is not intended to be a specific neighborhood design. Rather, this is simply a diagram used to achieve metrics common within good New Urbanist design. Let’s look at the basic metrics of each example:


sprawling subdivision on the north side of Santa Fe, New Mexico

   Housing Units: 114 (all single-family)

   Shops & Offices: none

   Civic Spaces: none

   Civic Buildings: none

   Arterial: 13.3 linear feet/unit

   Main Street: none

   Streets: 101.4 linear feet/unit

   On-Street Parking: none

   Service Thoroughfares:

      Driveways: 108 linear feet/unit

Neighborhood Metric

comparative neighborhood prototype diagram

   Housing Units: 814 (includes single-family units from cottages (throughout the plan) to mansions (on the right side of the plan,) townhouses, carriage houses, mews units, and live/work units over Main Street (on the left side of the plan)

   Shops & Offices: 99.27 square feet/unit

   Civic Spaces: 1 square & 4 playgrounds/pocket parks, total of 2.63 acres

   Civic Buildings: 4, flanking the central square

   Arterial: none

   Main Street: 2.13 linear feet/unit

   Streets: 28.03 linear feet/unit

   On-Street Parking: 2.02 spaces/unit

   Service Thoroughfares:

      Driveways: 9 linear feet/unit

      Rear Lanes: 10.2 linear feet/unit

      Alleys: 4.45 linear feet/unit

   Note: if you’re wondering how the total linear footage of alleys and rear lanes can be so low, it’s because there are a significant number of mews units and carriage houses on the same alleys and rear lanes that serve housing units as well.

   Since World War II, the US has chosen to build almost everything according to the sprawling pattern. Here are some of the consequences that choice has on city budgets:


police car sitting on street at night in front of New Orleans double shotgun cottage

   The sprawl above allows police to protect 46 housing units per mile of travel. The neighborhood allows police to protect 175 units in that same mile. This has a very real impact on police department budgets. While it might take the same length of time to apprehend a suspect in either setting, police don’t spend most of their time with guns drawn or handcuffs out. Rather, the lion’s share of their time in the field is spent on patrol in most places. Because each police team can protect only 1/4 as many homes per mile in sprawl, you need close to four times as many police in the field to afford the same degree of protection. The city also has to buy, fuel, and maintain four times as many patrol cars to get that same level of protection on patrol.


fire truck sitting in front of fire station in Port Louis, Mauritius

   Fire protection has similar issues. Fire trucks don’t patrol the streets like police, of course, but the fire ratings that determine the cost of your homeowners’ insurance is based in no small part on a city’s average distance from fire stations to housing units. Larger numbers of units protected per mile of street allows the city to save its citizens many millions of dollars in insurance costs without having to build, staff, and equip nearly so many fire stations. And with some fire trucks topping a half-million dollars apiece, the total cost of a new fire station can be a major item in a city’s budget.

   Dollars aren’t the whole story, however. For almost every house in sprawl, there’s only one way in: pull up to the front of the house and fight the fire (or the criminals) from there. Traditional neighborhoods, however, provide the additional benefit of alley or rear lane access, which just might be the difference in life and death in some emergencies.

   And this is only the beginning... check back over the next several days for the rest of the story for cities, neighborhoods, and citizens.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 02:10 PM

Emma Esoteric

Steve, thank for posting this informative yet sad look at sprawl issues. i only wish our city officials would take a serious look at these issues to begin finding ways to slowly improve things.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 02:40 PM


Back in the mi-90s I would attend the Dallas/Ft. Worth Council of Governments discussions on air quality, electric vehicles, bike paths, etc.  It was mostly show and tell but little commerce.  Now, The Texas Department of Agriculture is supporting that is encouraging rural development of baby-boomer communities.  Once in place and part of a retirement plan for generations of working class stiffs like me, the inner-city core of housing can be revitalized every few years without having to build new. Right now about 10,000 Americans a day are retiring from the workplace and stuck in a huge wasteful home in the middle of a busy city with no place to downsize and get out of the way.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 02:43 PM

Chad Cooper

Steve... This really is an excellent post!  This HAS to get people's attention... even homeowners who typically defend their current and future right to sprawl property.  Thanks!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 04:51 PM


So, you could cut the police budget about in half and still double the protection, right?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 05:23 PM


   I agree with you, but will you cover the "real" reasons people move to/build sprawl: larger houses are cheaper, better schools, yards for kids and pets, less crime, and perhaps the Ozzie and Harriet/Brady Bunch "American Dream" home of your own?
   By the way, I realize it is just a prototype, but I would like to see the mansions and almost-mansions more evenly distributed in the neighborhood.  I assume high-end condos would also be more evenly distributed, perhaps even heavier on the left.
   In Germany, by law, all multi-unit housing built with federal funds must include a certain proportion of social housing units in the building.  And these units must be indistinguishable from market rate units.  This has helped prevent ghettoism and promoted socio-economic integration.  I'm not sure if that applies to privately funded housing.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 - 07:33 PM

Robert Sharp

Don't forget to add in the costs to maintain the streets in the future.  It's shocking to me that the average house in a sprawl setting requires more than 100' of street per house.  The cost to maintain those streets over time will be far more than the initial cost to construct them.  The traditional neighborhood is far more reasonable in terms of linear feet of street per capita.

Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 07:52 PM

Andrew B. Watt

   Love your work, but I think you've not done a good job here.  You've demonstrated that you can squeeze a functioning neighborhood into a ninety-acre parcel, and I applaud that.  Yet your neighborhood doesn't actually take into account the nature of the landform that underlies the sprawl.  
   In order to build this neighborhood you're so proud of, the Santa Fe section would need to be clear-cut and then bulldozed.  There's a wadi or arroyo running through the middle of this satellite image, which would pass through the middle of your park.  And the fill-in and landscape destruction resulting from actually building this neighborhood would be as bad, though in a different way and on a different scale, than the sprawl it replaces.  
   That said, though... If you were to find an area of sprawl that HAD been already clear-cut and bulldozed, and you were trying to recover that area, this would make a highly suitable plan.  It would make possible the abandonment of a similar sprawl range on the outskirts of Santa Fe.   So it's both a good and bad plan you have here.  In a version 2.0, I'd expect to see that central arroyo worked into the neighborhood plan, and with a park that extends through the middle of your neighborhood, north-south.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 - 06:31 PM


Let's not forget the cost of losing high-value farmlands to build sprawl….

Sunday, April 10, 2011 - 06:55 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Wow, thanks for all the comments, everyone! Obviously, these issues hit a nerve or two... as they should. As for the design of the prototypical neighborhood, I should have been clearer... and will be, in an upcoming post: it is not meant to be an actual neighborhood design, but rather to generate the metrics of a good traditional neighborhood by incorporating the same types and numbers of things. Why not design a real neighborhood? Because that takes a LOT more time than I can devote to a blog post... and the real neighborhood would generate very similar metrics to the prototype anyway, so what's the point?
   As for the landform of the sprawl subdivision, I'll maintain that you could build a compact traditional neighborhood in the same 90 acres... just look at San Francisco. From the air, it's tightly gridded. And that tight gridding on that steep topography makes for one of the most memorable cities on earth. And it's one that was built without bulldozing the site... that's another thing we need to relearn how to do: sit lightly on the land, even when you're building a city.

Sunday, April 10, 2011 - 07:09 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Responding to a few more issues in these excellent comments:
   A. I wasn't previously aware of While the idea of towns appealing to retired people as well as people of other ages is a great aspiration, they just might be missing the boat on one thing: a few minutes spent on their website gives me the impression that it's more of a Chamber of Commerce exercise rather than serious changes to the patterns of development we've seen the past half-century. Granted, I didn't dig deeply, but that's the first impression. In other words, they could do even better... much better.
   B. I agree with the Brady Bunch myth, but the reality is more like "how much quality time do you really wanna spend with your steering wheel?"
   C. Robert, you're exactly right... this post doesn't specifically deal with cost to maintain, but the more you build, the more you have to maintain.
   D. Exactly right on the farmland... the more land we gobble up, the more we kill the town's future nourishability by land nearby... because it's all paved over.

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