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Job migration to suburbs: an unstoppable flow?

Stimulus funds should be used to link city residents with distant suburban jobs, says a new study on job-siting trends.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / April 6, 2009

Offices and condos erected outside of Phoenix, such as these built in 2007 in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., are part of a trend of 'job sprawl' to the suburbs. Metropolitan Phoenix leads the trend.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File


New York

It’s called “job sprawl,” the not-so-distant cousin of “urban sprawl.”

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It’s easy to find jobs moving to the suburbs in places like metropolitan Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Chicago. Most weekday mornings, suburban thoroughfares are jammed with commuters trekking to their jobs – in their own communities. Employers, eager to establish leafy campuses in the suburbs in a bid to reduce commute times, are only adding to the local congestion. The trend, moreover, is probably immune to the ups and downs of the economy, concludes a study released Monday by the Brookings Institution.

Yes, even a deep recession may not affect where jobs of the future are located – although the study’s author says states and cities should use some of the federal stimulus money now flowing their way to reverse part of the job outflow.

Jobs leaving the cities include professions such as finance and insurance, which have long been centralized in city centers. As jobs move farther out, low-income workers increasingly lose out because many lack transportation to get to those jobs and cannot afford housing near them.

“There are a lot of implications for today,” says Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report, “Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment.” “The current environment is a good opportunity to try to reverse some of these trends because we have billions in the stimulus package, and how we spend the money will have an impact on these regions.”

State and local governments have the best opportunity to use the money to reshape their communities, says Ms. Kneebone. They will be getting money for new roads, mass transit projects, and housing.

“Instead of treating transportation decisions and housing as separate policy areas, leaders can start to link up these agendas because they really are related,” says Kneebone, a senior research analyst at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, which provides research and policy ideas to metropolitan areas.

For example, she says, when jobs are added to the outskirts of a city, regional leaders need to ask if there is workforce housing nearby. “If there is not, is there transportation to connect workers to these jobs? And if they are commuting from distant parts of the region, what does that mean if they have public transportation options, for traffic, emissions, and the general carbon footprint of the metropolitan area?” she asks.

Job sprawl has been particularly disadvantageous for lower-income workers, she says. Many live in cities, distant from where the jobs are migrating. As a result, they spend a sizable share of their wages on commuting expenses and child care.