Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mitigating job sprawl: Suburbs play a role, too

Good morning. Let's talk job sprawl. Dallas has got a lot of it, according to research announced last week by Brookings. (Read a summary here and full report here.)

Only 10.6 percent of Dallas' jobs are within three miles of downtown, explaining why last year's news that AT&T would move its headquarters downtown drew such raves from civic leaders.

(Steve Brown wrote about this for the paper last week, and Downtown Dallas boosters pointed out that moves like AT&T relocation to downtown mean we are reversing course. Let's hope so, but some other companies may be headed the other way, and Brookings' research suggests that long-term trends are slow to reverse.)

Downtown Dallas does a better job keeping its share of jobs than Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles, which have 8 or 9 percent of their jobs in the downtown core. But other major cities far outpace us in this regard, including San Francisco (23.7 percent), Seattle (19.1), Philadelphia (15.5) or St. Louis (14.1).

There are lots of reason for this. Maybe the most obvious is that each of those four cities above are located on the sea coast, or on the shores of a major river, which acts to constrain their growth in at least one direction.

By contrast, Dallas extends out into flat lands for as far as the eye can see. As a result, fully 66.9 percent of Dallas jobs are more than 10 miles from downtown. (And, by the way, it's not just a Dallas problem. Austin and Houston ranked 5th and 6th, respectively, in terms of losing jobs from the core to the outer rings.

What has this got to do with transportation? Plenty.

Job sprawl can have big costs. It can make us as individuals spend more time in traffic, more money on gas, and replace our cars more often. As a community, it can mean more roads to be built, more and longer rail lines, and more air pollution.

But maybe the most interesting part of the report, authored by Elizabeth Kneebone, is that it concludes that job sprawl doesn't have to be a disaster for communities. If jobs are rooted in what demographer Robert Lang of Virginia Tech calls "edge cities" -- communities that are built organically, no matter how far from the urban center -- then the negative impact may greatly be reduced.

If new residential development keeps pace with commercial and industrial development, then employment decentralization need not mean that people become further geographically separated from their jobs. However, as Lang demonstrates, a predominant form of new development in major metro areas is "edgeless," where new offices spread out along interstates and other commercial corridors, and not in "edge cities" that can truly integrate residential and business uses. The resulting separation may exact costs by raising commuting times and congestion, and by limiting the range of transportation options that can serve low-density job development.
My colleague Ted Kim wrote an interesting on Sunday about slowing growth in the exurbs, those endless subdivisions that have sprung up in once tiny towns at the edge of Dallas-Forth Worth urban area.

He writes:

"In places like Celina and Sanger, Princeton and Ponder, the steady march of the suburbs has all but stopped. Builders have gone under. Vacant lots now checker many subdivisions. And communities that not long ago were seemingly destined to become Dallas' next great megaburbs are tempering their forecasts."

Folks in downtown are going to keep cheering for big wins like AT&T, but in the meantime maybe the slowdown at our edges will give us more time to think through how we develop on our edges, too. Putting jobs in close proximity to where people already live -- including our suburbs -- rather than continually sending them out to places where we think they might one day live could be a good start.

Let us know what you think.