US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Urban Studies 2016, Vol. 53(2), pp. 247–266. DOI: 10.1177/0042098014562331


U. S. government work.


A decade ago, compactness/sprawl indices were developed for metropolitan areas and counties which have been widely used in health and other research. In this study, we first update the original county index to 2010, then develop a refined index that accounts for more relevant factors, and finally seek to test the relationship between sprawl and traffic crash rates using structural equation modelling. Controlling for covariates, we find that sprawl is associated with significantly higher direct and indirect effects on fatal crash rates. The direct effect is likely due to the higher traffic speeds in sprawling areas, and the indirect effect is due to greater vehicle miles driven in such areas. Conversely, sprawl has negative direct relationships with total crashes and non-fatal injury crashes, and these offset (and sometimes overwhelm) the positive indirect effects of sprawl on both types of crashes through the mediating effect of increased vehicle miles driven. The most likely explanation is the greater prevalence of fender benders and other minor accidents in the low speed, high conflict traffic environments of compact areas, negating the lower vehicle miles travelled per capita in such areas.