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Hidden costs in Northeast Ohio sprawl revealed

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/28/15 @ 2:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities, Transportation choices

Moving to a new home in Geauga County might come with a warning label—about the costs of living in a car reliant location.

For example, a Geauga resident might be exposed to four times the risk of dying in a car crash than a resident of a large city.

In its "Analysis of public policies that unintentionally encourage sprawl," The New Climate Economy (NCE) a research body at the London School of Economics calculates the personal costs, like greater risk, and out-of-pocket expenses, to living in places that demand lots of driving to and fro.

A growing population expecting rural character but demanding urban amenities also comes with a larger cost to the rest of us, notes study author, Todd Litman, a leading researcher on the cost of sprawl versus compact development.

Death and taxes<br />A Geauga County resident (far right) has four times the risk of dying in an auto related accident than a New York City resident (far left). Source: Todd Litman.

It’s enough to make one expect some fine print with the sales pitch of safe, clean, easy access to nature.

For instance, as Northeast Ohio builds out to Geauga, Lorain, and Medina counties, it increases road “lane miles” by about 10%. More roads increases not only hours spent in the car; new infrastructure has an inflationary affect on home prices, raising them 8% on average; the share paid by local governments also increases by 10% annually.

Spread across fewer households, infrastructure in a newly developed areas will add around $13,000, or $550 a year, per dwelling unit. It is a big reason that houses are more expensive—and unaffordable for many—in new, remote suburban areas.

Even with developers paying some of the costs through impact fees, new infrastructure is expensive—and not evenly paid for. For example, another hidden cost of a car-dependent location: the six parking spots each car needs at all of the destinations in its daily travels, notes Litman.

Because land is a scarce resource, building low-density, auto dependent places translates to a subsidy for those who drive. While there are some benefits, such as access to nature, only the new residents feel them. Increasingly, the rest of the region pays for sprawl with higher housing cost, worse air quality, higher food prices and damage to ecological systems. For example, if left unpaved, land in the countryside might otherwise absorb rain water, Litman says, or be farmland.

The study looks for what Litman calls resource efficiency. In doing what economists call full-cost or lifecycle accounting, Litman adds up the personal / “internal” benefits and subtracts the societal / “external” costs.

Sprawl is a failure from a market perspective, finds Litman, who calculates that one house in a low-density place takes more land for paved roads and parking—an average of 280 square meters—than an apartment takes up in a compact area.

His report draws on existing research in assigning a real dollar figure to location and land-use (i.e. compact vs. sprawl) decisions. In the process, Litman hopes to change the conversation from one of values to costs, and provide city and regional leaders with the tools to make more informed decisions.

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