Volume 83, Number 3

June 2008

Transportation Planning and the Prevention of Urban Sprawl

Michael M. Maya

In recent years, a number of states have passed comprehensive land use reform bills.1 Many of these statutes have appeared in response to the phenomenon of urban sprawl—a pattern of haphazard, automobile-dependent development on the fringes of existing cities. With rising personal incomes and persistent consumer demand for single-family homes on large lots in ethnically and physically homogeneous jurisdictions, urban sprawl has boomed. Fearful of the myriad costs of sprawl—which many commentators have chronicled—some states have acted to prevent it altogether. The most egregious costs of sprawl include the abandonment of urban centers, severe air and water pollution, and the loss of open green spaces. In economic terms, sprawl also vastly increases transportation costs for residents and workers who must travel greater distances to reach their homes, their jobs, and other destinations. Without statewide coordination, sprawl is difficult to prevent. For example, if one county prohibits the subdivision of its farmland into low-density residential lots, a neighboring county will not necessarily do the same. In fact, precisely because the restrictive county has stifled consumer demand, its neighbor may have greater incentives (in the form of spillover demand) to permit sprawling development. In addition, neither county is likely to be particularly well attuned to the negative effects of sprawl, which are often geographically and temporally dispersed and thus less salient for many local politicians. To combat these structural and political problems, some states have addressed sprawl as a matter of statewide, rather than local, concern.