Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Are We There Yet? Job Sprawl

Job sprawl has been especially bad news for low-skilled underemployed or unemployed workers because it creates a “spatial mismatch” between where they live and where jobs are located. A number of studies have found that while minority and lower-skilled workers still tend to live in core urban neighborhoods in disproportionately high numbers, lower-skilled jobs are often located in outlying suburban areas that tend to be more white. A 1997 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study found, for example, that 87 percent of lower-skilled service jobs were being created in suburban areas.

“People sprawl has long been known for its effect on the environment, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life and more,” Brookings Institution analyst Elizabeth Kneebone writes in a 2009 report on job decentralization. “Now we must recognize what ‘job sprawl’ means for the economic health of the nation. The spatial distribution of jobs has implications for a range of policy issues — from housing to transportation to economic development — and should be taken into account as metro areas work to achieve more productive, inclusive and sustainable growth and, in the near term, economic recovery.”

Top 10 regions connecting existing jobs to transitThe big problem with the decentralization of employment, as with the decentralization of housing, is that it’s hard to get to far-flung jobs without a car, and it’s expensive to build transit to get people to faraway locations. It’s no surprise that New York, Boston and San Francisco lead the nation in the number of jobs that can be accessed by transit, since they all have extensive transit systems and — perhaps because of this — jobs have remained concentrated in downtowns and urban neighborhoods. Some smaller cities — including Portland and Eugene in Oregon as well as New Orleans — also perform well when ranked according to the number of jobs near transit, proving that smaller regions with smaller transit networks can also succeed. See list on opposite page: Top 10 regions connecting jobs to transit and list below: Top 10 regions connecting new transit to jobs.

Top 10 regions connecting new jobs to transitBigger systems are better, however. The average station along an extensive system has more than three times as many jobs within walking distance as a station in a smaller system, according to Reconnecting America’s research. This is because larger systems connect more job centers to more residential neighborhoods, making it possible to build at higher densities without having to provide acres of parking. This means that more employers can locate near transit and more people can find jobs near transit — a virtuous cycle.

But there’s another downside to job sprawl, explains Greg LeRoy of the nonprofit Good Jobs First, who says that as jobs thin out geographically, the quality tends to diminish. Without a geographically dense labor market and the higher levels of unionization found in the urban core, he adds, suburban employers tend to pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits.

Working families that do buy cars in order to adapt to suburban living are taking on an expensive burden. “This creates a discriminatory labor market when new jobs locate in suburban areas not accessible by transit. For working families with or without a car, sprawl amounts to a tax on their standard of living. It suppresses their incomes and raises their bills,” says LeRoy. “Enabling everyone to reach good jobs via public transportation means more money for family savings, health care, home equity, and college educations.” 

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