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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
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.

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

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.

“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.”

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).

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