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Houston and the cost of sprawl

Written By: - Date published: 10:15 am, June 16th, 2013 - 51 comments
Categories: housing, infrastructure, transport - Tags:

The Right’s favourite sprawl example at the moment. Sections for $50,000. Wow! But they haven’t asked why new sections in Houston are so cheap. They’ve just assumed its because Houston doesn’t have tight zoning rules. In fact, they do – but their rules encourage sprawl. And, while the land may be cheap, it means much higher living costs – particularly transport.

Take a look at this graph:


New Zealand’s use is 25 GJ of petrol per person a year.

So, Houstonites are using more than three times as much petrol per head as us and its inextricably linked to their sprawl. If you’re all spread out you’ve got to drive further.

If New Zealanders used so much petrol, it would add $5,000 a year to the average household’s annual bill.

And the price of petrol has been rising at an average of 8% a year for a decade.

So the cost of sprawl in terms of energy use is massive. Add to that the cost of all the motorways, which spend most of their time largely empty and heavily congested for a couple of hours a day (Houston has the fourth worst congestion in the US – you just can’t build enough roads to get ahead of the traffic demand generated by sprawl on that scale)


Houston is partially hedged against that rising cost – it is the centre of the Texan petro-state – the world capital of oil. When oil prices rise, there’s more work and higher incomes in Houston, which counters the higher cost of petrol (which is lower near the Texan oil fields anyway). Auckland doesn’t have that hedge.

The cost of burning more petrol. The cost of building more roads (and leveling existing houses to do it). The cost in transport time on congested roads. All those transport costs are costs that a person takes on when they buy a section on Houston, or in any sprawled city. Yes, the price tag on the land might be cheap, but the cost of owning it is anything but.

h/t Auckland Transport Blog


51 comments on “Houston and the cost of sprawl”

  1. Rogue Trooper 1

    Auckland: The Lone Far State.
    and then there is all this National Party Social Media Roading Propaganda.
    Oil Supplies may tighten up as early as 2015 according to The Guardian.
    Duplicating all that Infrastructure and Amenities.
    Lost Productivity due to commuting.
    Was listening to the husky tones of Georgia (or Angel) consoling those Aucklanders stuck in a jam on the Southern Motorway for two hours this week. To requote Key and Brownlee, “hope they’re tuned to a good radio station. (The Prisoner is not from Piece of Mind, Mikey: Love your work).

    • AmaKiwi 1.1

      How can we get more New Zealanders to live and work in a foreign city which has a good public transportation system?

      Once you have, you appreciate the joy of not being enslaved by your car.

      OK, comedians. I know we are exporting our best and brightest. How do we win them back?

      • Colonial Viper 1.1.1

        Wait for those other spots to start collapsing faster than we are. The other possibility is by creating a country with clear leadership and a social vision for an Energy depleting future.

        Sprawl makes us just the same as the worst around the world.

        • Rogue Trooper

          carry on, unwinding the skein.

        • mickysavage

          The best example is Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of cheap oil Cuba had to reform dramatically. Car use went way down and physical health improved dramatically, and organic community gardens that did not rely on fertilisers appeared everywhere. There is a lot of information out there on the phenomenon but a starting point is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organopónicos and http://peakoil.com/generalideas/the-power-of-community-how-cuba-survived-peak-oil.

          • Bill

            True that Cuba did manage to survive the post USSR period. The problem I have with it is that it was probably only possible due to the fact that Cuba was a command economy. And relatively benign as Castro was/is in terms of dictators, the loss of political freedom and general agency that comes with a command economy is too high a price to pay. Far better than being directed by a dictatorship of one form or another (state or corporate) would be for us to empower ourselves to make the necessary changes

            • Colonial Viper

              Well, command economies come in all shapes, shades and sizes. NZs responses during WWII and during the 70s oil shock for instance. Muldoon era economics.

              One thing which we know is very helpful in collapse, whether gradual or rapid: social capital. You want to build lots and lots of it, and to do so early on before you need it. The details of the administrative systems can then build on that advantage.

              Nicely, it is something which makes local democracy function very well.

              • weka

                My understanding is that alot of the agricultural/horticultural changes that happened in Cuba post-Soviet support were managed collectively, not just via the dictatorship (it’s been a while since I read that history though). I agree with what you say in general Bill, but given Cuba was in that state before the loss of cheap oil, they did very well. It’s not like we would ever be in that same situation. For NZ, I see the potential for us to lose democracy very quickly if the wrong people are in power when the wrong crisis hits at the wrong time. Can you imagine Brownlee in charge if we were to have sudden ongoing food and power shortages brought on by an oil crisis?

                So, empowering ourselves. We should be doing this now, yeah? I agree with the idea of building social capital. And I think we need to be developing systems of inter-relationships and local governance too. If the current undermining of local authority by NACT continues we will be in a very sad state when the shtf. How liberals and conservatives work together strikes me as crucial, which is why the microcosm that is ts is interesting (albeit pretty depressing too).

          • Macro

            Interestingly Cuba is the only country in the world still that not only has a high level of equity, but also lives withing it allocated carbon foot print per person. It is the living example of a steady state economy. It has a well developed health and education systems, far better for the average person than the USA.
            It is a glimpse of what the future will be like post oil – without the – the modern technologies

            • weka

              Macro, what are you meaning by allocated carbon footprint? I would guess that Cuba still uses more resources than its landbase can sustain over time (ie it’s total environmental footprint is still too high), and that it’s carbon emissions are relatively low compared to the big hitters (wiki says Cuba and NZ are on par for carbon emissions).

  2. happynz 2

    It isn’t just Houston.

    Here in the fast “developing” state of Kedah in Malaysia the car rules. Here’s why. New housing developments, called tamans, pop up out in the former rubber and oil palm plantations like mushrooms after a night’s rain. The usual taman will have several thousand terrace houses packed into a couple hundred hectares. Not so bad, but these tamans usually have no services such as shops, restaurants, clinics, supermarkets, or places of entertainment. (OK, there’s often a mosque nearby so people’s spiritual needs are met.) If anything needs to be done, it’s a case of getting in the car and travelling. It’s just too hot and sweaty (not to mention dangerous to one’s health and safety) to trek down a highway to pick up some bread and the papers. A car or motorbike is a necessity as public transport is totally shit in my city. The only saving grace at present is that petrol is relatively cheap at RM1.90 per litre (NZ$0.75).

    With the combination of housing sprawl, lack of amenities in the farflung housing estates, and cheapish petrol, yeah, cars rule (and traffic usually sucks).

    • Colonial Viper 2.1

      Nothing like a good mix of property development and political corruption to get the best housing outcomes for citizens. What is the financing for these new houses like?

      • happynz 2.1.1

        If you’re a Bumiputera (Malay) you’ll get a nice 5-10% discount right off the top. As for financing, I can’t say. There’s a bewidering (to me anyways) array of financial tools that are used. The Islamic banks don’t use interest as paying interest or usury is not halal or sumthin’ (I’m not all that up to speed on Quranic studies obviously) so mortages are adjusted in some manner or rather. For us non-Muslims I’ve read somewhere that mortgages go for around 6-8%. I have a sneaking hunch that a significant number of houses and apartments are purchased with cash with the cash coming from savings, family whiparounds, wedding gifts of cash, and erm…seed money from informal sources.

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    All those transport costs are costs that a person takes on when they buy a section on Houston, or in any sprawled city.

    And that’s just transport. On top of that you’ve also got the extra costs to provide basic services such as sewage/storm-water/rubbish collection and even parks.

    Sprawl is massively expensive once you take everything into account.

  4. Paul Campbell 4

    Don’t forget that Houston is hot and humid as hell – a bunch of that cost is due to running your car’s air conditioner for much of the year, without that expense (and home air conditioning too) Houston wouldn’t be particularly habitable at all

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      The massive power failures the US experienced last summer was very little fun for a people used to being cooled by their 140 energy slaves.

  5. Bill 5

    So okay, it’s true that more car journeys are undertaken when peope are ‘sprawled’. But local ammenities could be incorporated into housing plans – shopping precincts constructed that are central to each cluster of housing. Fairly souless – but a solution of sorts. The UK tried this post-war, with the construction of its New Towns.

    But people still commuted to main centers to get to their jobs. And that, it would seem to me, is the principle problem; the jobs. Companies have centralised their operations and rely on transport to solve any potential location problem. Meanwhile, the days of ferrying workers via company buses are long gone. (Let’s not bother mentioning the farcical public transport system in NZ) An obvious point to make is that most jobs are utterly pointless – beyond their capacity to make money for the owners/shareholders and their promise to afford workers the means to participate in society via access to cash.

    But with the likely massive increase in fuel costs (alongside other factors) putting onerous financial pressures on workers already subjected to quite deliberate incremental impoverishment, we arrive at a problem that probably won’t be solved within a market context.

    The only way I can see to solve the problem of where people might reasonably live, is to get to grips with the multiple problems/expectations associated with our job culture. I’d argue to simply get rid of it. There is no reason not to develop systems based on worthwhile production. There is no compelling reason why we couldn’t/shouldn’t allow ourselves to pursue a meaningful life free from social pressure that would have us shackle ourselves to meaningless jobs for years on end.

    Is a social wage one solution? I don’t know.

    But without the pressure to have any job at any cost, the population of NZ could spread itself throughout the country. There are many small towns with ample housing. The principle problem is the lack of meaningless jobs in such places. But when meaningless jobs are seen as such, and a reasonable life not reliant on being shackled to one…

    • The first thing you do is you upgrade public transport and if you have a transport system that does not rely on oil you make sure it is in as good shape as possible in preparation for the day oil starts disappearing and the price soars.

      For instance if you had the chance in your major city to double the potential throughput of your electricity fuelled train system by digging a tunnel you would do that immediately.

      Wouldn’t you?

      • Bill 5.1.1

        For instance if you had the chance in your major city to double the potential throughput of your electricity fuelled train system by digging a tunnel you would do that immediately.

        Wouldn’t you?

        Well, no…I wouldn’t bother to be honest. The way we live determines our dispersal – or lack thereof – and it simply isn’t sustainable. What I’d do is begin the get the country ‘ahead of the curve’ in terms of reconfiguring our living arrangements and working lives to cater for the upcoming post peak world. But it’s not up to me. And it’s not up to you. It’s up to policies emanating from numerous, deeply conservative institutions. And that means there will be a panic – a flurry of inadequate policy reactions somewhere off down the track – and absolutely nothing in terms of visionary pro-active policy now.

        • Colonial Viper

          If we had actually conservative institutions, we’d probably all be better off. Things engineered to last, strong back up plans and redundant systems, spare capacity and a well trained competent staff.

          The most conservative people I know have 3-4 years of firewood stashed up…”just in case”…of what I’ve never quite figured out, but its simply a way of looking at things and making design choices.

          • weka


            Avoiding sprawl is a good idea if you think that energy supply will increase over time but you want to be prudent financially and resource wise. If you think energy/resources will decrease, then Bill is right. We can afford to spread out a bit and rearrange to localise pretty much everything – food production, energy production, jobs. Some manufacturing still makes sense to be more centralised, but lots can be taken back to the local level.

            Even within large cities this makes sense. Chch would be better off as a series of interlinking towns and villages rather than centralising everything. Around and between the towns would be food growing space that wasn’t being done within the town. If people think that commuting is going to be an issue in the future re transport fuels, take a look at the real costs of food miles and how fragile our current food production system is (and by that I mean what we get to eat, not whether farmers can make money exporting kai).

            There is no reason why making a living cannot be localised for most people too.

            Except as Bill points out, we’re not in charge 🙂

          • RedLogix

            +1. CV

            Actually what you’ve described is the difference between ‘cautious’ and ‘reactionary’. Far too often the word ‘conservative’ is used to mean the latter when it really means the former.

          • Ad

            well said

      • Jimmie 5.1.2

        Where does the electricity come from to fuel this public transport nirvana?

        Coal/Natural Gas/Oil? = Bad
        Nuclear = Evil
        Wind and solar = Wonderful but ineffective and minimal out put and bad for the environment (especially wind)
        Other = ????

        Saying that it is powered by electricity is all very good but you have to figure out where that electricity is to be generated from.

        • One Anonymous Knucklehead

          Oh noes! We might have to figure it out!!!

          You missed out a couple of categories of power generation. I expect that’s just you being a fuckwit.

          • weka

            Seemed like a valid question to me.

            • One Anonymous Knucklehead

              Sounds like a banal, bad faith question to me. When did the need to plan for the future suddenly become such a huge problem? When did wind and solar power become ineffective and minimal?

              When did drill it mine it sell it RoNS groupie Jimmie start to give a toss about public transport?

              • Jimmie

                Well duh – wind and solar output is intermittent at best, requires large battery storage (bad for environment), subsides to make it cost efficient, and in the case of wind turbines they kill thousands of birds every year – including rare eagles in the US.


                I didn’t mention hydro as though it works well the red tape hupla to jump through to get new projects approved is ridiculous and many countries don’t have the water sources available.

                Geothermal is great too but is available in very limited quantities.

                So yeah for all those who want to jump on the electricity band wagon need to provide suitable cost effective generation options otherwise tis all for nought.

                • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                  Yes, Jimmie, future transport options will require planning and not a little adaptation, because continued fossil fuel use will cease to be an option.

                  I note your cheer-leading for RoNS utterly fails to acknowledge this.

                • lprent

                  The most well tested and simplest way to store excess generated power is to simply pump water uphill into a dam. Small hydro lakes don’t fit because you may as well use the power directly rather than spilling. But there have been numerous examples around the world of high ponds, lakes, and dammed valleys used for the purpose.


                  Why bother with batteries?

                • Colonial Viper

                  and in the case of wind turbines they kill thousands of birds every year – including rare eagles in the US.

                  As if deep sea drilling, shale fracking and tar sands operations don’t kill massive amounts of wild life as well. The deep sea horizon spill…well the loss of wildlife there was devastating.

                  Don’t see nature loving you campaigning against deep water drilling though, strangely.

              • weka

                “When did drill it mine it sell it RoNS groupie Jimmie start to give a toss about public transport?”

                Ah, so you know him already. I was taking the comment at face value.

                • One Anonymous Knucklehead

                  It even motivated him to argue his case a little more coherently, but as usual, we need better wingnuts.

  6. The plan is just build road after road, basically handing over cash to Fletcher to build roads to nowhere.

    • Rosetinted 6.1

      That’s what the roading authority in Naples did – with the Mafia. So we were told in the 1970s.

  7. millsy 7

    Proponents of urban sprwal never bother to consider things like services and amenities…

    • Colonial Viper 7.1

      No profit just costs for private developers considering that ‘unnecessary crap’

  8. Macro 8

    Houston will die with the collapse of oil. It is completely unsustainable.

  9. Ad 9

    Would Julia Ann Genter quickly release an alternative Government Policy Statement for Transport please.

    If there really is to be a good crack at this from late 2014, the whole industry need to know how tight the turnaround is going to be.

    Auckland has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the world, in part because it is one of the most motorway-and-road dominated cities in the world. Can it be turned around? Is there really the will?

    Without a fresh and reversed GPS, Auckland Transport and its partner NZTA Auckland will continue to do the (LTMA) job of reconciling the Auckland Plan with the current GPS. Which is a whole site better for public transport than what is in Auckland now, but it’s also a whole lot more roads.

    Julie-Ann, I know what you don’t like, and I know you like the CRL. But do you have the policy chops to turn this supertanker around? Why not come on the site and tell us.

    And could Russell please confirm that she will indeed be the Greens’ preferred transport minister, rather than presuming any Greens caucus member can do any portfolio.

    • karol 9.1

      The Greens Policy on transport is mainly a series of bullet points at the moment, with a general outline of policies for Auckland and Wellington.

      • Ad 9.1.1

        If it is going to be a Green Minister of Transport by November 2014 – and that’s a whole bunch of if’s – they will need to come in hard and come in fast.

        That means telling MoT and the transport Briefing to Incoming Ministers to get lost …

        … and having one of your own ready to go. Slapped down on the table.

        Given MoT’s running Ministerial interference for the current Minister on the City Rail Link, the new Minister should rehearse a line like: “You do not have my confidence.” ie piss off and get me a progressive police wonk who can deliver me the goods.

        Then the Minister would need to review the entire makeup of the NZTA Board. Particularly a chat about which motorway budgets can be cut for the same productivity and safety benefits.

        Then the Minister would need to have fully pre-written their own Government Policy Statement for transport … slap it on the table and start disseminating into MBIE and Treasury.

        Then have a sit down with the major City mayors for a heart to heart.

        And of course presume that the entire transport construction industry, car industry, trucking industry, and the AA – together with their media access, lobbyists, and fully vested interests, would have their guns ready for prolonged trench warfare.

        It will make the housing lobby we have seen in action over the Auckland Unitary Plan look like a walk in the park.

        Should the Greens get the transport prize in November 2014, buckle in.

        • Colonial Viper

          she’ll need powerful allies – and you’ve not listed any

          • Ad

            The progressive Mayors, Transportblog, a few media reporters on National Radio, NZHerald, Campbell Live, the usual NGO’s … and if the new Minister frames it well enough, every driver in a queue, and every public transport commuter with unsatisfactory performance.

            The playing field is tilted hard in favour of the status quo … which is why the new Minister would need to come in hard and fast, install their own people, and get the hard moves done fast inside the first 100 days.

  10. infused 10

    I find it pretty bullshit… take LA for instance. I was staying on the outskirts. It was a good 20-30 minute drive in to town, but I only went once. We had shopping complexes and everything we needed in walking distance.

    Walmarts were everywhere.

    Americans all have V8’s too. Everywhere I went. I think I saw two jappers. Hummers there, fully kitted out are only 20-30k usd.

    • One Anonymous Knucklehead 10.1

      Say, that sounds really swell*, just a couple of questions:

      What’s a litre of gas (that’s what Americans call petrol) going for over there these days, and how much do they use?

      *transparently disingenuous.

  11. Rich 11

    Why not take Detroit as an example – you can get a section for $100 with a free house thrown in.


    Beats 50k in Houston. Ok, you’d need to spend a few grand on guns and bullets to shoot all the neigbours, and there isn’t any paying work within 500 miles, but cheap is cheap.

  12. Kiev 12

    So that graph would be a lot more helpful if,

    a) Auckland was on it
    b) It was current – that graph relates to a 1989 report/study.

  13. Lloyd 13

    If you want to get data on the relationship between urban density and energy Google “Newman and Kenworthy”.

    Every person who wishes to have input into urban design should know the relationship between density of cities and the fuel use per person that Newman and Kenworthy discovered.

    I bet Bill English has never heard of them.

    If you haven’t, look them up today, rather than tomorrow.

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  • More than 1,300 schools to face budget cuts
    The latest Ministry of Education figures reveal thousands of schools will face cuts to funding under National’s new operations grant funding model, says Labour's Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins. ...
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  • Speculation fever spreads around country
    House prices in Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga are going off as a result of uncontrolled property speculation spilling over from the Auckland market, says Labour’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford.  “Speculators who have been priced out of Auckland are now fanning ...
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  • New Zealand lags on aid targets
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  • War on drugs needs more troops
    The Minister of Police must urgently address the number of officers investigating illegal drugs if she is serious about making a dent in the meth trade, says Labour’s Police spokesperson Stuart Nash.  “Answers from written questions from the Minister show ...
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  • Doctors strike symptom of health cuts
    The notice of strike action issued by the junior doctors today is the result of years of National’s cuts to the health system, says Labour’s Associate Health spokesperson Dr David Clark. ...
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  • Government starves RNZ into selling Auckland asset
    Just weeks after TVNZ opened its refurbished Auckland head office costing more than $60 million, RNZ (Radio New Zealand) has been forced to put its Auckland office on the market to keep itself afloat, says Labour’s Broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran. ...
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  • Government must be more than a bystander on the economy
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