The Challenges of Geography of Jobs in Small Cities

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently playing with the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool, which (primarily) allows users to do a variety of fun things with data relating to where people live and work. As someone who grew up in a mid-size Northeastern city (New Haven), and currently lives in another (Albany), I have a particular sensitivity to the economic challenges facing such cities. And while researching New Haven last year for a paper, I ran across some rather disturbing data in the city’s comprehensive plan about just how few of the jobs in the city are held by city residents, which the following graphic does a pretty good job summarizing:

via New Haven Comprehensive Plan Update 2013 Databook and Census OnTheMap/LEHD

via New Haven Comprehensive Plan Update 2013 Databook and Census OnTheMap/LEHD

Just 23.1% of workers in New Haven actually live in the city, and over half (56.5%) of the city’s employed residents have to travel outside city limits to find work. The latter statistic actually interests me more, since, as a transit planner, it is much harder to plan service for reverse-commuters, who tend to head to diffuse locations, than it is for people employed within a city.

How typical is New Haven, though? New Haven was, proportionally, among the hardest-hit cities from urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s, and in many ways has yet to recover. Using OnTheMap, I decided to look into these numbers among a set of midsize American cities, and compare them to some larger cities. The selections, are, admittedly, arbitrary; I picked cities I’m familiar with or know at least something about, and I will perhaps return to this in more rigorous fashion later.

Major Cities % of working city residents employed in home city Minor Cities % of working residents employed in home city
Washington, DC 64.20% New Haven 44.00%
Philadelphia 63.20% Hartford 34.30%
NYC 84.40% Albany 46.70%
Chicago 63.70% Akron 36.30%
Houston 68.90% Dayton 33.00%
Phoenix 60.20% Portland, ME 52.10%
LA 51.90% Harrisburg 26.10%
San Francisco 61.60% Roanoke, VA 43.20%
Denver 48.00% Des Moines 50.40%
Minneapolis 42.10% Peoria, IL 47.40%
Average 61% Average 41%

On the whole–there are, obviously, exceptions–smaller cities are able to hold in and employ a smaller percentage of their residents than larger cities. That’s not particularly surprising–larger cities have greater economic “pull” and will naturally pull a larger percentage of total regional jobs into themselves (that’s a set of data I will perhaps pull into comparison with these at some future time). But it does have other, negative effects for residents of those smaller cities that have trouble providing in-town jobs for their residents. Those residents are (probably) more likely to have longer commutes, and are obviously less able to use public transit or walk to work.

There’s a lot more to unpack here, and obviously regional differences have a major impact in employment patterns. Sunbelt mid-size cities, for example, which have historically been able to annex growth, retain more of their workers than older cities. Northeastern mid-size ex-industrial cities are really struggling; look at the numbers for Harrisburg (a state capital, a status which tends to cement lots of job in place!), Akron, and Dayton. Overall, these numbers present a challenge for planners that goes beyond the typical land-use considerations. I’ve become more and more convinced that arresting job sprawl is just as important to a more sustainable future than stopping land-gobbling residential sprawl. I think what these numbers are telling us is that that job sprawl is a particular concern for small-to-midsize cities. After all, concern for pollution, congestion, and such is important, but what happens to a core city when half or two thirds of the residents have to look elsewhere for work?

For a look at how this dynamic can look in practice, let’s take a look at the census tracts that contribute the most workers to jobs in New Haven:

Data from LEHD/OnTheMap; exported to Google Earth

Data from LEHD/OnTheMap; exported to Google Earth

The pattern is just about backwards from what we should expect. All of the tracts that contribute the most workers to New Haven are located either on the fringe of the city (mostly in wealthier neighborhoods) or in the suburbs. The inner-city neighborhoods hardly register at all. It’s the residents of those neighborhoods–poorer, more vulnerable, less educated–who are having to trek out to the suburbs for work.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Geography of Jobs in Small Cities

  1. Now I’m curious: what’s the inverse of the last map, that is, the tracts with the most jobs held by New Haven residents? If we see some amount of centralization, for example around Hamden’s malls, then the situation is not so bad as if it’s uniformly low density throughout the towns surrounding New Haven.

  2. I don’t think you are fully correcting for the fact that smaller city’s are physically smaller. One can have a very long commute purely within Chicago, whereas the distance from the New Haven Green to the Hamden town line is a little over 2 miles, it’s walkable.

  3. Pingback: Transit’s Native Habitat | Itinerant Urbanist

  4. Pingback: Is Job Sprawl “The Defining Issue of Our Time”? | Itinerant Urbanist

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