Time to meet urban sprawl's new cousin

August 11, 2010

OK, get your pencils out for a quick quiz: What do Detroit, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia have in common, besides having Major League Baseball teams? Answer: the highest percentage of “job sprawl” of major metro areas in the U.S.

Job sprawl? Qu'est-ce que c'est?! According to the Brookings Institution, it's the migration of jobs farther and farther from urban downtowns. The five metros listed above range from 77.4% of jobs located at least 10 miles from city center (Detroit) to 63.7% (Philly). On the flip side, the five most “job-centralized” metros are Virginia Beach-Norfolk (36.4% of jobs within three miles of city center), New York (34.8%), Salt Lake City (32.3%), Las Vegas (29.9%), and Boston (28.0%).

In “Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment,” Brookings senior research analyst Elizabeth Kneebone notes that more than half (53%) of the 98 major metros studied experienced rapid job sprawl in recent years. From 1998 to 2006, job sprawl was most virulent in Phoenix, Memphis, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Austin, Texas.

Kneebone notes that job sprawl hits hardest at low-income workers, many of whom live in cities and have to spend a disproportionate chunk of their wages on commuting and childcare services. Higher-income suburbs are adding service jobs but not affordable housing or public transit for these workers.

Kneebone's rigorous documentation puts hard numbers on what we already know to be true from anecdotal observation. Urban sprawl has been with us for six decades, and it's not going away. Few metro areas have the planning authority or political guts to contain it, as Honolulu has done for the past 50 years, or as Lexington and Fayette Country, Ky., have done to limit development in the greenfields surrounding the urban area.

That may be changing, however, due to climate change. One of the more insidious aspects of urban/job sprawl is that a suburb with 10 households per acre will generate about twice the travel-related CO2 emissions of a city with 100 households per acre. In general, city dwellers have fewer cars, take shorter trips, and make greater use of public transit than suburbanites.

The bellwether state of California—a/k/a “Sprawl Central”—is pushing regional growth planning by requiring metro areas to develop “sustainable communities strategies” to reduce vehicle miles and greenhouse gas emissions. Its new law, SB 375, rewards metros that meet their regional SCS targets with more state infrastructure dollars and incentives from the state's Air Resources Board.

SB 375 is the first state law that explicitly connects the dots between the location of housing, jobs, and vehicle miles traveled in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. It may well signal a 180-degree change of direction for other states where the negative effects of sprawl are out of control.


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