Costly auto-dependency

It appears to be generally accepted that auto-dependent sprawl is bad from an environmental perspective, and also from a social perspective. However, one of the biggest arguments that public transport advocates seem to come up against is that roading projects come across as having better cost-benefit ratios. Furthermore, land-use policies continue to generally promote single-use sprawl instead of intensified mixed-use developments – despite the recognition that auto-dependent sprawl leads to higher CO2 emissions and other environmental nasties. Pages 29-44 of my thesis detail the adverse effects of auto-dependent sprawl quite exhaustively.

So let’s have a look at the economic effects of auto-dependent sprawl a bit more, using my favourite book of late: Resilient Cities. OK I admit it, the main purpose of this post is to allow me to quote good bits of this book – but seriously they are too good not to share! For a start, the book outlines the way in which many of the actual costs of auto-dependent sprawl are somewhat “hidden” from us:

One of the main characteristics of our modern society is that so many of the direct and indirect consequences of our consumption and other personal (and collective) decisions are hidden from us. We tend to judge our investments in renewable energy in terms of artificially truncated incomplete pricing systems that fail to adequately account for the full and true costs of our overuse of fossil fuels.

This is particularly true for private vehicle focused transportation policies in my opinion. We don’t offset the CO2 emissions produced by our cars, or the particulate matter emissions that kill hundreds of people in Auckland a year, or the effects of requiring masses of the city being set aside for parking, or many many other hidden costs of our auto-dependency. This is further detailed:

Buying a house in auto-dependent suburbs, far away from work and commerce, does not include the full costs of commuting – economic costs or cost to the environment and human health. Numerous studies show the hidden costs of such sprawling development to government and to individuals. One study that compares the costs of alternative development patterns found that smart growth could provide savings of anywhere from five to seventy-five thousand dollars annually per unit for public infrastructure costs and five hundred to ten thousand dollars annually per unit for incremental operations, maintenance, and service costs.

The hidden subsidies that make auto-dependent sprawl are particularly evident when it comes to transportation issues:

Most people consider driving to be cheaper than transit. However, data suggest that direct costs are more when totaled (though these are rarely tallied as gasoline alone is seen as the cost) and when external costs (such as building and maintaining road infrastructure and the cost to the individual of purchasing and maintaining an automobile) are added, driving is much more expensive. The costs of car travel have been estimated to be about three times the cost of transit, though it is perceived by motorists to be less expensive… Transit-based cities spend around 5 to 8 percent of their city wealth on transportation but in heavily car-based cities this ranges from 12 to 15 percent (even 19 percent for Phoenix).

I probably have mentioned this before, but really this is the crux of the issue. It simply makes far more economic sense to invest in public transport and avoid auto-dependent sprawl.

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