Sprawl as City Observatory Sees It

"Last week, we introduced the "Sprawl Tax": the time and money American commuters spend just because their cities are more spread out than they might be. This week, we compare American sprawl to that of our international peers, and it's not pretty. On average, in 17 European countries plus Canada, households spend 12.8 percent of their income on transportation; in the US, it's 18 percent. Commuters in those countries spend, on average, about 39 minutes commuting roundtrip per day; the average American spends 51 minutes. We can do better."

How sprawl taxes our well-being

By Joe Cortright from City Observatory 13.6.2016

In the first installment of our “Sprawl Tax” series, we explained how laws and patterns of development that make our homes, businesses, and schools farther apart cost us time and money—on average, nearly $1,400 a year per commuter in America’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. In the second installment, we showed how the Sprawl Tax is levied much more heavily on Americans than our international peers, with US commuters paying a much larger proportion of their income on transportation and spending much more time on their trips to and from work than people in other wealthy countries.

Today, we want to talk about another cost of sprawl, and the greater distances it forces us to travel: Our quality of life. Powerful evidence suggests that longer commutes make us individually less happy and less healthy, in addition to having detrimental effects on our communities. In recent years, behavioral economics has made great strides in determining how different factors influence our happiness. Consistently, this literature finds that long commutes are strongly associated with lower levels of “subjective well-being”—the technical term that researchers use to describe “happiness.”

One study from Germany, for example, calculated that reducing one’s daily commute time from 23 minutes each way (the German average) to zero minutes would produce an increase in happiness equal to about an 18 percent increase in income. Research in other countries, including the United States, has produced similar results.

In a survey of working women in Texas, behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators found that time spent commuting had the lowest positive ratings of all daily activities.

Other studies have confirmed that commute distances are correlated with happiness and health. The Gallup Healthways Index shows that Americans with longer commutes report lower levels of subjective well-being. The data also show that long commutes are correlated with a higher incidence of back pain, obesity, and high cholesterol.

We also have detailed data from a survey taken by the state of Connecticut. For nearly every income group, self-reported well-being declined as commute distance increased. The chart below shows that relationship. The power of commuting distance was such that low-income households (making under $30,000) with a roundtrip commute of 40 minutes or less reported being as happy as households making roughly twice as much money (between $50,000 and $75,000), but with commutes of 80 minutes or more.



It’s not a surprise, then, that average commute times are also correlated with satisfaction with the local transportation system itself. Using data from a survey of homeowners commissioned by Porch, an online home improvement information firm, and the median commute length as calculated by the Brookings Institution, we can see a strong negative correlation between metro area commute times and satisfaction with the region’s transportation system: the longer the median commute, the less satisfied homeowners are.




Conversely, it turns out that transportation satisfaction is almost completely uncorrelated with “congestion”—at least as it’s often measured. As you can see below, the Urban Mobility Scorecard ratings of metropolitan traffic congestion calculated by the Texas Transportation Institute bear almost no relationship to whether homeowners report being satisfied with their region’s transportation system. If anything, congestion is associated with more satisfaction.




Taken together, this analysis suggests that overall commute distances—and not traditional measures of traffic congestion—are the chief factor influencing homeowner perceptions about transportation.

Finally, there is evidence that longer commutes have social, as well as personal, costs. Robert Putnam reported that each additional ten minutes of commute time reduces social capital—things like church-going, civic participation, club attendance—by 10 percent.

As we’ve shown, Americans around the country bear the financial burden of the sprawl tax. But sprawling car dependent development patterns don’t just end up costing us time and money. The long commutes they engender also make us less happy. They’re correlated with lower levels of mental and physical health, and reduce our social capital. Among metropolitan areas, long commutes—and not traffic congestion—are what we find least satisfactory about our transportation systems.


About City Observatory

City Observatory is a website and think tank devoted to data-driven analysis of cities and the policies that shape them.

The website will feature posts that tackle misconceptions about cities, break down the latest urban research, and highlight the innovative ideas that strengthen our communities.

The site will cover topics such as transportation, housing, gentrification, place making, economic opportunity, and industry clusters. Core topics will be addressed in issue “cards” that will be updated on a consistent basis to reflect the latest data and research.

Periodically, the site will feature in-depth research report and papers on urban policy topics like crime in cities, traffic congestion, neighborhood change, and migration.   City Observatory is based in Portland, Oregon—a city synonymous with creative urban thinking—but our vision is nationwide in scope, looking at the best ideas for promoting city success, wherever they originate.