Kaid Benfield Archive


How municipal costs rise with sprawl

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 5, 2009 at 1:38PM

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There's a substantial body of literature documenting that infrastructure and service costs go up on a per-household and per-capita basis in sprawling neighborhoods where homes and businesses are more spread out and poorly connected.  But today, for the first time, I noticed a reference specifically to fire department costs:

"An intriguing study from Charlotte's city staff illustrates another of sprawl's hidden costs, with city taxpayers in this instance footing the bill: Fire station costs are sharply lower in older parts of town where streets connect. The study analyzed eight stations and found the annualized per-household life-cycle cost almost five times greater in disconnected, cul-de-sac-laden suburbia. Wilmington, Delaware (by: Lou Angeli, creative commons license)That's because fire stations in neighborhoods with traditional street grids can serve more square miles, since they can reach more homes within acceptable response times."

The quote comes from Mary Newsom, an associate editor at The Charlotte Observer, in a column distributed on CitiWire.  She notes, correctly, that yet another advantage of street connectivity is that it shortens travel distances and times for services provided by municipalities (i.e., taxpayers). 

While Newsom focuses on the ability of services in well-connected areas to reach more square miles of area, she also could have mentioned the ability to serve more households and businesses within each of those square miles.  Per-unit service costs go down with connectivity, but also with density.

Newsom's column was picked up by Ryan Avent on the Sustainable Cities Collective site, where I found it.  Avent adds the note that poorly connected streets also create congestion, because they channel neighborhood-to-neighborhood or neighborhood-to-commercial-district traffic onto a limited number of arterial roads.  He also suggests that the better solution to creating safe places for kids and families is not to build cul-de-sacs but to integrate safer design into connected streets.  I agree.