The Infrastructure Canard


One of the principal arguments used against suburbanization is that its infrastructure is too expensive to provide. As a result, planners around the high income world have sought to draw boundaries around growing urban areas, claiming that this approach is less costly and that it allows current infrastructure to be more efficiently used.

Like so many of the arguments (a more appropriate term would be “excuse”) used to frustrate the clear preferences about where people want to live and work, the infrastructure canard holds little water upon examination.

Becoming Less Affordable as Demand Declines: Within the new world high-income nations, there was considerable urban growth between World War II and 1980. Nearly all of this growth was in the suburbs, where infrastructure was provided through borrowing, taxation and utility user fees. Yet, even as population growth has slowed, the diminished bill has been declared beyond the capability of governments which have often opted for what is seen as more affordable compact development (smart growth).

Estimating the Cost of Suburban Infrastructure: The seminal volume Costs of Sprawl – 2000 projected a need for $225 billion more in costs from 2000 to 2025 for expanding suburban infrastructure than would be required for more compact development. This superficially large number melts down to $30 per capita on an annual basis. This is hardly the kind of expenditure increase that brings bankruptcy to local governments, even if it were not disputable.

Higher Cost Infill Infrastructure: Costs of Sprawl – 2000 and other analyses generally rely upon a “build up” of infrastructure costs, which is then extrapolated to develop overall estimates. These estimates are rarely, if ever, calibrated for consistency with actual experience as reported in government financial sources. Moreover, they generally assume that the cost of building comparable lengths of sewer, water or roads are equal throughout the urban area. They are not. Generally, costs are far higher in infill areas, for a variety of reasons, especially higher labor costs.

Public and Private Costs: Further, many of the infrastructure costs decried in Costs of Sprawl – 2000 and other sources, are not government costs at all but incurred by private companies. Virtually all local roads and some arterials are built and paid for by developers, with the costs passed on to homeowners. Sewer and water expenditures are usually financed by user fees, either paid to private companies or municipally owned utilities.

Cost Differences are Minimal: Moreover, my analysis with Joshua Utt of municipal water and sewer user fees from all reporting jurisdictions in 2000 indicated a 1,000 increase in population per square mile is associated with a $10 reduction per capita, a figure that does not justify strong-armed land use regulation.

The High Cost of Infill Infrastructure: Proponents fail to account for the fact that infill development also requires more infrastructure. The existing water and sewer systems in densifying areas are likely to require upgrades, now or later. In many older cities, these systems are older, even obsolete and may not have the capacity to meet the increased demand. Constructing these upgrades will generally be far more expensive in an already developed area than building new, state of the art facilities in greenfield areas.

Building Gridlock: The proponents virtually never propose expansion of roads to deal with the increased traffic that occurs in densifying conditions. Yet, the national and international evidence is clear: higher densities produce more traffic. Without more capacity, this means slower speeds, more intense pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no point in imagining that it can be any different. For example, the most dense part of the nation is New York’s Manhattan. It is served by a rail system that is far more comprehensive than any other place in the nation. Yet, traffic volumes (total vehicle miles) per square mile in Manhattan are more than 3.5 times that of the nation’s most congested urban area, Los Angeles, and 12 times that of the nation’s least dense major urban area, Atlanta.

Thus, any savings that might be obtained from not expanding roads to meet demand is achieved by retarding service levels. Further, the longer travel times would stunt economic growth.

The Transit Infrastructure Canard in Australia: One of the more ludicrous features of the infrastructure canard in Australia is the fixation with rail transit, which planners frequently justify to ban or limit suburban expansion. This is a Neanderthal view that fails to recognize that only a small portion of urban fringe dwellers work in the downtown areas, which are the only employment centers effectively served by rail. The minute roads are opened, the infrastructure for transit is in place. Bus service can quickly and efficiently be established to downtown, local employment poles, or the nearest rail station for those few outer suburbanites who can get to work more conveniently by transit than by their cars. Overall, less than 20% of commuters work downtown in Australian urban areas, and the farther out they live, the less likely they are to commute downtown.

Operating Costs are the Problem: Moreover, the focus on construction of new facilities is misplaced, because, construction costs are not the principal driver of public expenditures. Less than 20% of local government expenditures are for construction, while more than 80% covers day to day operations. New population, or the same population in a larger area will require similar government operating expenditures. It is likely that compact development will require just as many teachers and just as many public servants. Moreover, they will probably be paid more, since older, more dense communities have significantly higher government employee wages and salaries per capita than average.

Cost Consequences of the Infrastructure Canard: More importantly, the infrastructure canard imposes far greater costs on society than any savings even its most ardent proponents can imagine. This is because compact development materially increases housing costs.

Destroying Housing Affordability in Australia: There’s ample evidence of this down under. Planners have tied a noose around all Australian urban areas which virtually outlaws development on or beyond the urban fringe. As economics would predict, land for development has become scarce, which in turn has increased its price. Once known for its affordable housing, most Australian areas have seen the price of homes relative to incomes double or triple since the new policies were enacted. Nearly all of this increase has been in the price of the land, not in the house construction (inflation adjusted). Land for development is so scarce in this less than 0.5% developed nation that its urban areas are likely to be buried by blizzards before housing affordability returns.

Destroying Housing Affordability in the United States: In the United States, compact development polices have also increased house prices. For example, even after hitting bottom earlier this year, house prices in compact development markets such as California, Seattle and Portland remained as much as twice as expensive related to income than in less strongly regulated markets. The annual US infrastructure savings suggested in the Costs of Sprawl – 2000 are so small that they would pay less than one-third of the excess higher annual mortgage payments in California attributable to compact development (Note).

Fastest Growing Metropolitan Areas: Doing the Impossible: While planners in California, Portland, Seattle and elsewhere delude the public and elected officials into believing that suburban infrastructure is unaffordable, faster growing metropolitan areas found the opposite. Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are the three fastest growing metropolitan areas with more than 5,000,000 population in the high income world. Rather than restraining suburbanization, these metropolitan areas allowed it to continue. Their reward was not only delightful communities (despite their being despised by the planners), but also the retention of housing affordability. None of this has slowed some positive inner-ring development, particularly in Houston, to meet that niche demand.

A Matter of Will: The fast growing metropolitan areas demonstrate that suburban infrastructure can still be provided without a material financial burden to the community. Indeed, given the house price escalating effects of compact development, the cost of living will be lower where suburban expansion is allowed. It is not a matter of suburban infrastructure being too expensive but the resistance of planners and urban land autocrats to crafting policies that actually reflect the desires of the vast majority of people in most advanced countries.

Note: Estimated based upon the approximate 50% house price premium compared to metropolitan areas without compact development, assuming the average house price, a mortgage of 90% of the house value, amortized over 30 years at 5% and applied to the approximately 75% of houses that are mortgaged.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

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Strange set of arguments...

So just so we're clear on your argument:

a) building "greenfields" development on open farmland is cheaper than maintaining infrastructure in dense urban environments. In other words, it's cheaper to not bother maintaining crumbling infrastructure (urban or suburban). Presumably we should just walk away from these developments at the end of their 40 year lifecycle.

b) Manhattan has the densest concentration of motor vehicles because they have churlishly refused to add new roads to the built environment. Let's get cracking Manhattanites!

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Virtually all local roads and some arterials are built and paid for by developers, with the costs passed on to homeowners. Sewer and water expenditures are usually financed by user fees, either paid to private companies or municipally owned utilities.

Do you have a source for this assertion? Perhaps new roads or sewer lines within a development are privately funded, but did you analyze expansion and maintenance of existing roads/lines?

Furthermore, your arguments about housing affordability in Portland and Seattle (two cities with urban growth restrictions - I have no idea what you mean by "California" as it is far from a homogenous market) is backwards. The urban growth restrictions didn't serve to inflate values artificially. The "strongly regulated markets" served to preserve home value in a market that nationally was tanking. In other words, middle class investors were able to have security in their home investment thanks to regulation. They were not at the mercy of the hugely volatile boom/bust cycles seen in less regulated markets. So, instead of well-heeled developers or investors being able to turn big short-term profits, middle class homeowners are able to grow long-term wealth.

By the way, where is that Chinese drywall creating so much of a problem? Is that in the suburbs and exurbs? I bet that's going to be private money funding that clean-up too, right?