Those crazy planners at Smart Growth America are at it again: issuing another report all about how urban sprawl is bad and people are better off living in compact communities. Most news reports take it for granted that sprawl is evil and something ought to be done about it. But the report does devote all of three out of 51 pages to repeating claims about how sprawl makes housing unaffordable, transportation expensive, people fat, and lives shorter.
Almost all of these claims cite another report written back in 2010. Most of the claims are readily dismissed for several reasons.
First, some of the claims are based on models the planners made of cities and how they affect people, not on real life. For example, claims that transportation is less expensive in compact areas are based on models, not actual measurements. (They also fail to account for the huge differences in subsidies between transit and driving.)
Second, some of the claims are based on comparisons people living in different counties but not people actually living in suburbs vs. cities. The planners calculated a “sprawl index” for each county, but population densities, incomes, and other factors vary widely within most counties, so the averages may not really reflect differences between low-density suburbs and compact cities. The studies that result are no more than pseudoscience.
Third, many of the claims rely on the presumption that correlation equals causation. For example (as I have previously noted), they claim that sprawl makes people fat, but other studies have found that the small differences in weights between suburbs and cities are due to self-selection: people don’t get fat because they live in the suburbs, but some people who are overweight choose to live in the suburbs.
Finally, some of their numbers are simply an attempt to mine the data to find anything wrong with low-density areas. For example, they claim that housing is less affordable in sprawling areas, which is demonstrably false. To make this claim, they didn’t actually measure housing affordability but how much people choose to spend on housing as a percentage of their incomes.
Compare, for example, Houston–the most sprawling large metropolitan area by their measure–with New York–the most compact. According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 a median house in Houston was worth $141,600, which was 2.2 times median family incomes. A median home in New York was $401,600, which was 5.3 times median family incomes. Does that sound more affordable?
According to Coldwell Banker, in 2013 a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square-foot home in Houston would sell for $191,000, while in the suburb of Sugar Land it would sell for $212,000 and in the Woodlands master-planned community it would be worth all of $260,000. A similar home in the Bronx is worth $422,000; in Brooklyn it would sell for $498,000; while in the suburb of New Rochelle it would sell for $721,000.
Houston and New York are just the end points of their sprawl index, but most of the regions that they’ve rated “compact” have become unaffordable thanks to land-use regulation and other housing policies, while most of the regions that they’ve rated “sprawling” remain very affordable.
In the end, living in low-density areas is just as valid a choice as living in more compact areas. Failing to see the costs of regulations imposing compact living on people is also choice. The authors of this report have chosen to put on blinders allowing them to ignore housing costs and transit subsidies in order to make their choices appear morally superior.
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