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The hidden costs of living in the suburbs

The hidden costs of living in the suburbs

The suburbs already get a bad rap for their uninspiring streets and distance from both the excitement of the city and calm of the country.

Now a new study is challenging the main argument many homeowners use to justify their decision to live in suburbia: cost.

A new report from Sustainable Prosperity, a national research and policy network, claims to expose the hidden costs of suburban sprawl.

The report highlights the economic and environmental costs of expanding suburbia across Canada.

“Sprawling, suburb-dominated municipalities are now common worldwide – and overwhelmingly predominant in North America,” says the report released Monday.

“However, it is important to bear in mind that suburban sprawl is still in the experimental stage. As with other experiments, we don’t know how it will work out, and what the unintended consequences will be.”

The report argues city taxpayers, including homeowners and businesses, are directly and indirectly paying the price of pushing people to live further away.

It notes that 81 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, but half are in the suburbs, which are growing 160 per cent faster than city centres.

The main driver is price. The report cites a 2012 RBC-Pembina survey showing 79 per cent of Torontonians picked the location of their home based on cost, while 81 per cent said they would prefer a smaller place in the city over a bigger place in the suburbs if price weren’t a factor.

Still, many homeowners don’t factor in higher transportation costs, including gas and often the need for a second car when they move to the suburbs.

If the average car costs an estimated $10,000 per year, that’s money that can be plowed into retirement savings or even a larger mortgage payment.

“The question of affordable housing takes on an entirely new meaning when considering the automobile dependency created by suburban sprawl,” the report says. “ In a sense, homebuyers are being sold on the low sticker price for houses, while the high costs of the needed car ownership are brushed aside. Housing in sprawling areas is only 'affordable' because the costs are being transferred to the homeowner’s transportation bill.”

The report also looks at the impact suburban sprawl is having on the budget of municipalities.

The City of London, Ont. estimates it would pay $2.7 billion more in capital costs and $1.7 billion in operating costs over 50 years to expand the city outwards, versus a more condensed growth plan.

Halifax says it could save about $715 million over the next 20 years by opting for more dense urban development, including increasing the number of new homes in the urban core to 50 per cent from 16 per cent.

Calgary found it could save $11 billion in capital costs by implementing a denser growth plan that used 25 per cent less land, the report states.

There are also hidden costs for taxpayers when suburbia is expanding, known as “sprawl subsidy.”

“Today's transportation systems further mask the costs of sprawl. The vast majority of roads in Canada are free to use, but they aren’t cheap to build or maintain,” the report says, noting that governments in Canada spend nearly $29 billion on roads every year, more than what’s spent on transit, rail, air, marine and all other transportation modes combined.

The other hidden costs are the impact on air pollution and climate change, which are hard to track but Sustainable Prosperity says can’t be ignored.

The group is calling on government to manage sprawl, acknowledging many already have it on the top of their agendas.

“It appears that the time is right to be discussing solutions,” the report concludes. “Municipal governments are studying the financial costs of sprawling development and the long-term liabilities it imposes.”