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The Cost of Sprawl #3: The Personal Toll

So far in this series of stories (see #1B, see #2) I’ve focused on inequitable distribution of the negative social and economic impacts of sprawl on our country.  There is also another cost borne by the  people who support and feed sprawl with their lifestyle choices.  It is a cost they overlook.  It is a cost which is stealthy… a cost which many take for granted as if it is a given fact of life.  It is the very high cost of personal transportation made necessary by sprawl.  Many sprawlites strap themselves to this major lifetime expense without realizing the true impact it has on their lives and finances.

I stumbled upon this PBS video, which follows a family as they navigate the new recession based economy in the suburban sprawl-scape of the remote fringes of Phoenix Arizona.  This particular family did what many describe as “drive until you qualify”.  The processes of sprawl development particularly common in high cost, high growth metros is for builders to develop the cheap open rural land at the very edge of the population. They get the land cheaply and in turn sell the houses they build on the land cheaply.  Each succession of new building pushes further and further into the hinterland.  In overheated, high growth markets many people followed these cheap houses as they push further from the center until they qualified for a mortgage.  Many of these new fringe subdivisions have become ground zero for the recent mortgages crisis and it is no coincidence that these places also have the highest transportation costs.


So, a happy motoring suburban family qualifies for their mortgage and they buy the house.  But the cost of the house is only part of the calculation and the bank does not care about the rest.  Beyond how much you owe on your car(s) loan the banks don’t care what your transportation costs are.  Beyond the loan an individual pays gas, insurance and maintenance that few take into consideration when determining the affordability of a house.  Transportation in far fringe sprawl areas can be a major part of a family budget.  The American family on average spends 52% of their income on housing and transportation together.  An ex-urban family such as the Grasso family depicted in the video likely spend much more than the average.  They bought into the American suburban dream but failed to take into account the true cost of the lifestyle they chose.  When their second car had transmission trouble they were suddenly jolted into the reality of their choice.  Due to the economy both had recently taken pay cuts and being in Phoenix they most  likely have negative equity in the house.  They could not afford to move and they could not afford to repair the car.  With no other transportation available they now drive together in one car to remote job locations and child care.  The 2-hour daily round trip adds up to 120 miles a day!  They live day to day in fear of the remaining car having trouble. Tony Grasso described the car as their lifeline.

The massive 2000 square mile Phoenix metro also is the poster child of extreme sprawl. Its over 2 million people rely almost entirely on car transportation. The scenario depicted in the video is less likely to be a problem in the Buffalo area where overall housing prices are relatively reasonable and stable and people have more choice available to them.  But, like all American cities, public transit in Buffalo is a distant priority to the accommodation of cars.  That means that a high percentage of people in metro Buffalo live in places where cars are the only reasonable alternative to getting around.   Interestingly the Phoenix area has recently begun to play with light rail.  Their brand new $1.4B system is 20 miles long but serving a very small portion of the population.  60% of the line was paid for with a 1/2% local sales tax increase.  The feds picked up the rest.  The new line caries about 43,000 people per day or about  2100/mile served.  By comparison Buffalo’s 6.4 mile system caries about 23,000 per day or about 3600/mile served.   It is clear that mass transit alone will not be able to tame a sprawl monster like Phoenix.  Perhaps instead the mortgage crash and the troubles experienced by families like the Grassos are signs that our American sprawl utopia is imploding in on itself.

Written by STEEL


Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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