NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Urban Sprawl is not So Bad

September 2, 2003

Before the invention of the automobile, cities grew up around railroad stations and transit hubs. The fact that businesses needed to be within walking distance of consumers resulted in an increase in the density of urban areas.

But with the invention of the automobile, note economists Edward Glaeser and Matthew Khan, workers could travel longer distances faster and cheaper. Also, urban areas became more spread out and the size of homes increased:

  • Americans are not only living farther away from city centers, but theirplaces of employment are also moving farther from downtown.
  • The average commute time in New York City is 39 minutes -- the highest in the country -- compared to a 21-minute average commute time for all outlying urban areas in the United States.
  • The median housing unit in Manhattan has 820 square feet compared with 1950 square feet for the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The economists do note that sprawl has one negative social consequence: people too poor to afford a car cannot take advantage of the car-based lifestyle that sprawl requires. However, restricting urban sprawl would increase congestion, resulting in longer commute times.

Source: Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn, "Sprawl and Urban Growth," Working Paper Number 9733, May 2003, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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