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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.

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“Even though we see more poor [people] moving to the suburbs, more recent data show that mismatch is persisting even at the suburban level,” says Kneebone. “We’re adding service jobs in higher-income suburbs that don’t necessarily have affordable housing or public transportation.”

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In recent years, as gasoline prices rose sharply, some companies and workers considered alternatives such as commuter vans. But few jobs actually shifted back to the urban core.

“If we had seen gasoline prices persist at higher levels, we might have seen a shift in behavior. But because it’s come back down, I’m not sure if that’s enough,” she says.

Changing the job-sprawl trend will be difficult. In the study, Kneebone looked at metropolitan data between 1998 and 2006 – a period that experienced a boom, a bust, and then a slow recovery.

“Throughout all these changing economic circumstances, these trends of jobs moving out of the urban core persisted,” says Kneebone. “Though we are facing job losses right now, what that might mean is it could slow these trends in some regions, but the current recession on its own is not likely to reverse the trends.”

Of 98 metropolitan areas Kneebone studied, 95 saw some kind of job shift away from the urban core, though the number of jobs increased in all metropolitan areas. Within the study, only 21 percent of employees worked within three miles of downtown, while 45 percent worked more than 10 miles from the city center.

More than half of the major metro areas (53 percent) experienced rapid job sprawl. For some metro areas, such as Atlanta and Washington, this shift in jobs to the suburbs came while the entire region grew. Within the 1998-2006 time frame, the largest increases in jobs outside of the central business district were in Phoenix; Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Orlando, Fla., and Austin, Texas.

The top five metro areas in terms of job sprawl (that is, share of jobs located at least 10 miles from the city center) were Detroit (77.4 percent), Chicago (68.7 percent), Dallas (66.9 percent), Los Angeles (65.6 percent), and Philadelphia (63.7 percent).

By way of contrast, the most job-centralized metropolitan areas (share of jobs located three miles or closer to the city center) were Virginia Beach-Norfolk (36.4 percent), New York (34.8 percent), Salt Lake City (32.3 percent), Las Vegas (29.9 percent), and Boston (28 percent).