That got us thinking: What if we could quantify some of these same issues from a city-friendly angle—measuring not the cost of congestion, which suggests that the solution is to build highways until every car is free on its own field of asphalt (a solution, by the way, that we know doesn’t work), but the cost of sprawl: of patterns of building that make people travel longer because their home, work, and other destinations are so physically far from each other?
So this week, we present the “Sprawl Tax”: what it is, how much it costs us, and what we can do about it. We found that the in time and money, American commuters have to pay a sprawl tax of over $107 billion dollars a year in the 50 largest metropolitan areas—nearly $1,400 for the average commuter. That includes the costs of the 3.9 billion additional hours American commuters spend traveling to and from work per year, or about 50 hours per worker.
Adding together the sprawl tax for each of the largest 50 metropolitan areas gives $48.5 billion dollars per year—or nearly $630 for every commuter annually. The financial aspect of the sprawl tax varies from $34.7 million in New Orleans to $4.7 billion in Dallas. In per commuter terms, the region with the biggest sprawl tax is Atlanta, where sprawl costs the average commuter more than $1,600 a year. The city with the smallest per capita sprawl tax is New Orleans, at just $60.66 per commuter per year.
But these figures reflect just the out-of-pocket costs of owning and using cars. What if you take time into account? After all, the longer trips forced on commuter by sprawling cities cost money, but they also cost time. Using a similar methodology, we calculated an “excess travel time” index, applying average travel speed for each metropolitan area to its benchmark commute distance, as opposed to its actual commute distance.
The result? In the 50 largest metro areas, sprawl costs commuters 3.9 billion hours per year, or more than 50 hours per year per commuter. That means sprawl makes the average commuter spend over two entire days per year traveling to and from work unnecessarily. The worst offender? Atlanta, where the average commuter loses 112 hours per year, or over four and a half days. In the metro area that performs best, New Orleans, commuters lose just over seven hours per year.
Many Americans think sprawl is a great thing because they own their 2500 square foot home but the cost of commuting 30 or 50 miles to a job is incredibly high, economically and personally. But those costs get naturalized by most people, while the costs of building dense, affordable housing and good public transportation are seen as expensive luxuries that also reek of being un-American, unlike my giant suburban house and big SUV.