Smart Growth: Commuting and the Urban Sprawl

By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

In many nations, commuting is an indispensable part of life for many. Having spent a year in the bustling city of Hong Kong, the benefits of an efficient and highly accessible public transportation system have only become more evident to me. However, transportation is the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, accounting for some 23% of carbon dioxide emissions, and 40% of end-use energy consumption (WHO, 2019). 

Moreover, financialisation and growing populations have led to an urban sprawl, as the affluent middle class expands, along with the demand for large, spacious housing. Los Angeles (LA), California, is a notorious case for this, as one of the most congested cities on the planet. Urban sprawl promotes single-mission, single-occupant car journeys (Raferty, 2019), with LA as one of the most car-dependent cities in the world, with over 72% of the working population using a private automobile, and highways constituting 60% of LA’s land area (Anderton, 2013). LA also saw the advent of the “supper commuter”, with some 150,000 individuals now undertaking a ninety-minute one way commute (Chiland, 2019). This had major economic impacts, as it cost the average commuter over $1,000 a year in lost productivity. On a national level estimated costs are around $166 billion (Schrank et al., 2019).  

These figures, however, negate the human impacts of excessive commuting. The health impacts are extensive, such as increased potential for permanent lung damage and asthma attacks (American Lung Association, 2019). For example, research by Cromar et al. found a 10% increase in deaths related to ozone pollution from 2010 to 2017 (2019). These factors can all be attributed to poor urban planning in the form of low-density housing, suburbanisation, lack of public transportation infrastructure and high-quality central housing, or effective campaigning for governance to introduce deterrents to car usage.  

Traffic fills the 110 freeway during rush hour on May 7, 2001, in downtown Los Angeles, CA. Photo taken by David McNew, Getty Images.

Moreover, health impacts no longer conclude at the physical. Research by Clark et. al. (2018), studying commuters’ subjective well-being, found that longer commute times were associated with lower job and leisure time satisfaction, and poorer mental health, resulting from time away from family, boredom, and social isolation. Cloutier et al. (2017) found that cycling and walking brought about the greatest levels of subjective well-being, with physically active commuting reducing the incidence of sickness, lower levels of stress and exhaustion, and fewer missed workdays, as well as a greater work-life balance.  

With this in mind, I believe we must focus on Smart Growth. Smart growth is a pattern of high-density growth contained within a boundary with an expansive mass transportation network enabling easy access to services and places of work. Some steps to realising Smart Growth include the following; 

  •  The density of the built environment must increase. This means the modification of zoning laws to place restrictions on suburbanisation, including large detached housing, and isolated out-of-town shopping centres.  
  • Infilling can also be used; the rededication of land to new construction, to maximise valuable land, and prevent building on surrounding green areas. 
  • Social infrastructure including places of work and amenities should also be within walking or cycling distance from residential areas to attenuate the reliance on cars, greatly increasing sustainability.  
  • Perhaps, most importantly, there must be an extensive, efficient, and cost-effective mass public transportation system. Low-cost tickets are especially important in addressing the unequal nature of the urban commute, which restricts access to high quality employment for low-income residents (Liu & Shen, 2011).  
  • Finally, there must be extensive green space and recreational parks. Not only do these have extensive environmental benefits, but a great bearing on mental and physical well-being.  

Through these three approaches, urban fabrics become built places for humans rather than the automobile; the antithesis of 20th century urban expansion.  

This is exemplified in Curitiba, the capital of Parana state in Brazil, with a population of over 3.2 million people. Urban planners in Curitiba implemented a programme of transit-oriented development, to deal with issues of congestion, lack of access to high-quality employment, and the rapid expansion of shanty settlements. The move focuses on pedestrianisation and the BRT – Bus Rapid Transit; a mass public transportation system running from peripheral areas to the central business district. The BRT services the whole of Curitiba, using a colour coded system according to their function and the areas they serve. The majority are red buses with fewer stops, whilst green buses transport those living in suburban areas to express routes, and orange buses connect outlying districts. There is a single fare and a universal ticket for all bus services, enabling quick transfers, and all bus stops are designed as futuristic glass tubes, to provide ease and shelter. Alongside this, the BRT was accompanied by the construction of dense public housing along transportation routes to move people out of informal settlements. This has proven to be extremely successful, with around 85% of the population using the BRT daily (Richard, 2009). Moreover, the project invested in parks and green areas, with green corridors to enable wildlife to migrate around the city. The parks help further conservation, and reduce pollution, as well as act as a sink to control flooding from the Iguazu River. 

Image of the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. Photo taken by Anna Alexe on UrbanizeHub.

However, density alone carries with it a number of social issues, that urban sprawl initially sought to address, such as overcrowding. This highlights the necessity of effective urban planning, to ensure that higher densities do indeed bring higher qualities of life. Spatial planning and densification, therefore, must direct economic activities and social infrastructure to existing urban settlements, including the regeneration of existing housing stock.  

Furthermore, as Smart growth will reduce the time or possibly the need to commute, the time saved must not translate into longer working hours, but should instead be invested in leisure time to produce greater subjective well-being. This method of urban planning is not only about improving environmental and economic sustainability, but also democratic empowerment of people. It is clear, from this, that Smart growth offers major potential in the quest for sustainable development. 

Header Image: Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


Anderton, K. (2013) Private Motorized Transport, Los Angeles, US. Nairobi: UN Habitat 

American Lung Association (2019) Most Polluted Cities. [online] Available from: (Accessed: 29 October 2019)

Beckett-Hester, F. (2019) GREEN SPACE: A LUXURY FOR THE WEALTHY?. [online] Available from: (Accessed: 30 October 2019). 

Chiland, E. (2019) Number of LA residents dealing with commute times over 90 minutes surges. [online] Available from: 

Clark, B., Chatterjee, K., Martin, A. et al. (2019) How commuting affects subjective wellbeing, Transportation

Cloutier, S. & Karner, A. & Breetz, H. & Toufani, P. & Onat, N. & Patel, S. & Paralkar, S. & Berejnoi, E. & Morrison, B. & Papenfuss, J. & Briggs, A. & Carlson, C. (2017) Measures of a Sustainable Commute as a Predictor of Happiness. Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, 9(7): 1-15. (Accessed: 29 October 2019). 

Cromar, K. & Gladson, L. & Ewart, G. (2019) Trends in Excess Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Air Pollution above American Thoracic Society–Recommended Standards, 2008–2017. New York: Marron Institute of Urban Management.

Liu, C. & Shen, Q. (2011) An empirical analysis of the influence of urban form on household travel and energy consumption. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 35(5): 347-357. 

Rafferty, J. (2019) Urban Sprawl. [online] Available from: (Accessed: 29 October 2019). 

Richard, M. (2009) Curitiba’s Bus Rapid Transit: 2.3 Million Passengers a Day. [online] Available from: (Accessed: 29 October 2019). 

Schrank, D. & Eisele, B. & Lomax, T. (2019) 2019 Urban Mobility Report. Texas: Texas A&M Transportation Institute. 

World Health Organisation (WHO) (2019) Health and Sustainable Development. [online] Available from: (Accessed: 29 October 2019). 

One thought on “Smart Growth: Commuting and the Urban Sprawl

Add yours

  1. “Most people will tell you that there only way to get around LA is by car. I’ve lived here seven years without driving and I’ve got to say, the public transit is excellent. We have the second-biggest transit system in the country, by ridership, and it’s growing at a far faster pace than any system in the US.”
    – Alissa Walker, An urbanist’s guide to Los Angeles: “The most misunderstood city on the planet”


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