Segments of the conservative press in the UK are currently running a concerted campaign against very minor proposals by the coalition government to relax land use regulation, arguing that this will encourage the further development of ‘urban sprawl’. Similar attitudes are prevalent in America – the supposed exemplar of a ‘sprawling’ society– where prior to his departure as a CNN anchor the conservative populist Lou Dobbs ran an almost nightly campaign against US urban development patterns. In this post I do not wish to enter the debate about the merits (greater living space and greater mobility) and demerits (loss of open space and long distance commuting) of low density urban development.* Rather, I wish to argue that insofar as sprawl is considered an environmental ‘externality’ it is the result of ‘government failure’ and not ‘market failure’.
The first aspect of government-generated urban sprawl that needs to be recognised is the role played by the state-subsidised and non-priced provision of roads, and large trunk roads (such as the US Interstate Highway system) in particular. In both Britain and in the USA the public sector is responsible for financing the roads that encourage a low-density form of urban development. The provision of tax-payer subsidised road-space encourages would-be commuters to live further away from their places of work than might otherwise be the case and as a consequence increases the demand for the expansion of sprawling low-density suburbs. This tendency to demand more road-space and the sprawling development that often goes with it is further accentuated by the provision of road space according to that cherished principle of the social democratic left – that ‘public services’ should be ‘free at the point of delivery’. The refusal of governments to use road pricing mechanisms which charge people directly according to their personal level of road usage encourages excessive travel to work distances and again makes the demand for suburban development higher than it would otherwise be.
Dr Mark Pennington is the author of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy.