Is Job Sprawl “The Defining Issue of Our Time”?

A few weeks ago, this tweet of mine got a decent amount of attention and inspired a good conversation:

It’s an issue of interest for me for several reasons. First, I spent my summer working on a to-be-released report for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign about people who reverse-commute from New York City to the suburbs. Secondly, as someone who’s lived in several smaller cities, I’m quite conscious of the ways smaller cities struggle to employ their own residents–in other words, job sprawl tends to be worse (and therefore a bigger policy challenge) in smaller cities than larger ones. Finally, my partner is a reverse commuter, from downtown Albany out to near the airport, despite the availability of plenty of open office space and land in between.

Oh, and also, it seems that certain influential political figures believe job sprawl is an important issue to tackle:

The genesis for this post was a clever study by Gregory Kloka, E. Eric Boschmann, and Andrew Goetz in Transportation Research Part A, titled “The impact of transit station areas on the travel behaviors of workers in Denver, Colorado” and summarized nicely by Eric Jaffe in Citylab. While the correlation between transit ridership and proximity of work and home to transit stations is well-established, the team sought to answer a slightly different question, focusing on Denver’s rapidly expanding transit system: “How worker proximity to light rail transit stations impacts non-work related personal trips.”  It’s an intriguing question because non-work-related trips are extremely understudied because they’re hard to quantify–and an important one because such trips are generally assumed to make up up to 80% of overall trips people make.

Here’s the money quote from their conclusions (p. 286):

The primary motivation of this study was upon how different transit station area relationships affect travel behaviors of workers. In most cases, statistically significant differences in personal travel behaviors between non-car commuters and car commuters occur in groups where workers’ workplaces are near transit station areas. An implication of this might be that locating workplaces nearer to transit or providing transit services to employment centers could be a more effective way of encouraging greater use of non-car modes beyond the work commute. Since significant differences were not identified between most of the commute groups with households near transit station areas, this suggests that workplaces located nearer to transit may be more effective at promoting the use of more non-car modes than locating households nearer to transit.

In plain English: working near transit increases the likelihood that people will use transit for all kinds of trips, but that effect is not seen when only their home is near transit. Though the authors are careful to affirm that this does not mean residential transit-oriented development (TOD) is unimportant–it still has an effect on work trips, according to most research–these conclusions might help us to understand the importance of commercial TOD. In other words, controlling job sprawl and locating jobs near transit might be more important than residential TOD in creating overall progressive, choice-rich travel systems.

These conclusions, though probably requiring additional confirmation from other urban areas, might have important policy implications. In my hometown of New Haven, Mark Abraham of DataHaven has done important work documenting the spatial mismatch between disadvantaged populations in New Haven and lower-skill service jobs in the suburbs.

Graphic from the New Haven Jobs Access Report, showing how a much higher percentage of workers from New Haven's poorer neighborhoods have to commute outside the city for work.

Graphic from the New Haven Jobs Access Report, showing how a much higher percentage of workers from New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods have to commute outside the city for work.

Abraham’s work–and the rhetoric adopted by New Haven mayor Toni Harp–frames the issue of transit access to suburban jobs as a civil rights issue. And, of course, it is. New Haven’s spatial mismatch is particularly bad because of its urban renewal fetish, which wiped out much of downtown in favor of parking, such that now most high-skilled jobs are held by people who drive in from the suburbs. Those same people fight fiercely any attempt to utilize the city’s massive number of parking lots for more productive residential or commercial development that might create some much-needed transit-accessible service jobs.

But Abraham and the Harp administration have tended to frame the issue as a need to extend transit for the reverse commute. While that may be a solution in the interim, in the longer term the results from Denver suggest that this is a land use issue, not a transit issue per se. The solution isn’t to extend transit out into the suburban hinterlands–it’s to control job sprawl. That means making downtown New Haven–the region’s most transit-accessible area–attractive for development. It means trying to channel suburban commercial development into the few, but existent, suburban transit corridors, such as Route 1, Dixwell and Whitney Avenues in Hamden, and Route 5.  It means helping private-sector employers understand that concentration rather than dispersion of jobs is economically optimal (h/t @devin_mb for that paper).

So yeah, Mr. Vice President, job sprawl is a big f’in deal. And the answer isn’t to go extending transit willy-nilly into the nether regions of the suburbs so that everyone has a minimal connection; route’s like CDTA’s #155 (which I’m picking on only because it goes right past my partner’s work, and is invariably empty) are the inevitable result of attempts to do that.

CDTA 155

CDTA 155

Bit where does one start with land use policies to begin repairing job sprawl? Many suburban office jobs are concentrated in secluded office or industrial parks that are fundamentally impossible to efficiently serve with transit:

Why my partner doesn't take transit to work.

Why my partner doesn’t take transit to work.

And my partner works for state government, an organization that should be particularly thoughtful about making its jobs transit-accessible! (hah. Cuomo. hah.) Central Avenue may not be the world’s most attractive or safest (for pedestrians) urban environment, but at least it has frequent transit from CDTA’s quasi-BRT service as well as local buses–and there’s plenty of land along it to develop for office space.

Corner of Central Avenue and New Karner Road, Colonie, NY.

Corner of Central Avenue and New Karner Road, Colonie, NY. 

There’s quite literally no reason to be tucking away office buildings in secluded subdivisions when we could be concentrating them–and maybe building just a little higher–along arterials that, if not exactly urban, at least have decent transit. And doesn’t segregating commercial development along arterials fulfill a key desire of suburban living–to have separate work and home spheres?

Jarrett Walker has long emphasized that, in terms of speed and geometry, North American suburban arterials are actually potentially quite useful for transit. Concentrating commercial development along those arterials, even if in a manner done only slightly more urban than today, could create a virtuous cycle whereby the sometimes tenuous operating economies of the transit lines serving them improves, allowing improved service, which in turn allows more density of all kinds. And since suburban arterials really aren’t that hard to serve with decent transit, concentrating jobs within walking distance of them could begin to solve the monumental challenge of job sprawl.

I’m sure I don’t have all the answers here, but I hope that this is at least a start to a conversation about the importance of controlling job sprawl and ways to start making that happen. Let’s get a move on.