Segments of the conservative press in the UK are currently running a concerted campaign against very minor proposals by the coalition government to relax land use regulation, arguing that this will encourage the further development of ‘urban sprawl’. Similar attitudes are prevalent in America – the supposed exemplar of a ‘sprawling’ society– where prior to his departure as a CNN anchor the conservative populist Lou Dobbs ran an almost nightly campaign against US urban development patterns. In this post I do not wish to enter the debate about the merits (greater living space and greater mobility) and demerits (loss of open space and long distance commuting) of low density urban development.* Rather, I wish to argue that insofar as sprawl is considered an environmental ‘externality’ it is the result of ‘government failure’ and not ‘market failure’.
The first aspect of government-generated urban sprawl that needs to be recognised is the role played by the state-subsidised and non-priced provision of roads, and large trunk roads (such as the US Interstate Highway system) in particular. In both Britain and in the USA the public sector is responsible for financing the roads that encourage a low-density form of urban development. The provision of tax-payer subsidised road-space encourages would-be commuters to live further away from their places of work than might otherwise be the case and as a consequence increases the demand for the expansion of sprawling low-density suburbs. This tendency to demand more road-space and the sprawling development that often goes with it is further accentuated by the provision of road space according to that cherished principle of the social democratic left – that ‘public services’ should be ‘free at the point of delivery’. The refusal of governments to use road pricing mechanisms which charge people directly according to their personal level of road usage encourages excessive travel to work distances and again makes the demand for suburban development higher than it would otherwise be.
Critics of urban sprawl are often vociferous advocates of large-scale public transportation or mass transit schemes as an alternative to automobile-focussed development. The construction of subsidised metro systems, however, far from discouraging urban sprawl merely adds to the demand for commuters to live in a more dispersed pattern, encouraging suburbanisation and development away from the older urban centres. If the users of public transportation are not faced with the full cost of the transport service that they use, they travel longer distances than would otherwise be the case – thus increasing the demand for a more dispersed housing pattern. Neither do public transportation systems reduce the demand for automobile use. At most they reduce the demand for car travel as the primary mode of getting to and from work. They do nothing, however, to reduce the demand for car use between suburban areas – where inter-suburban shopping and leisure trips predominate – creating additional pressures for sprawl. One need only look at the rapid outward expansion of suburban development in the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area to witness this phenomenon – an area served by one of the most heavily subsidised metro systems anywhere in the United States – and indeed the world.
In addition to encouraging sprawl via the provision of ‘free roads’ and subsidised public transit, government land use regulation often further intensifies the problem. In the US, large-lot zoning ordinances and prescriptive requirements for set-backs, road-widths and mandatory car parking all conspire to produce a low density and fragmented pattern of urban development. In the UK meanwhile, the ‘Green Belts’ drawn around most of the major cities in an attempt to limit sprawl, encourage a ‘leap-frog’ pattern of development – one which is now evident in US cities such as Portland which have copied key elements of the British model. While Green Belts have acted to physically stop the outward growth of cities such as London – the outer boundary of which has barely shifted since the mid 1950s- they have also acted to shift pressure for development to the areas beyond the designated zones. Development which might, in the absence of green belts, have taken place on the immediate urban fringe, is pushed 30 or 40 miles further out – intensifying the demand for long distance commuting across the green belts.
Critics of urban sprawl often highlight ‘market failure’ as its cause. Yet, with government ownership of roads, government refusal to charge consumers directly for the roads and ‘public transport’ that they use, and government-enforced land use regulations which encourage leap-frog development, it should be clear that ‘government failure’ is the primary source of any environmental externalities in this domain. First steps towards internalising these externalities would involve the introduction of widespread road pricing, privatisation of major trunk roads, and the abolition of government subsidies for both road construction and for ‘public transportation’.
*For an excellent review of these issues see Bogart, W. (2006) Don’t Call it Sprawl: metropolitan structure in the 21st century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.