Transportation is a fundamental requirement of human life. That’s why a new report about “the suburbanization of jobs” from the Brookings Institution is so disheartening. It finds that “the typical job is accessible to only about 27 percent of its metropolitan workforce by transit in 90 minutes or less. The suburbanization of jobs obstructs transit’s ability to connect workers to opportunity and jobs to local labor pools.”
These findings led me to ask the report’s author, Adie Tomer, some questions.
Why does it seem that such a high percentage of Americans are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t even allow them to think about jumping from their cars and into other forms of transportation? Is this mindset changing at all?
Metropolitan leaders and the communities they represent must think about the repercussions from their developmental decisions, which too often disallows a transit option. Metro areas that continue to grow outwards at lower densities will offer an environment that is far easier to navigate via private automobile. In these places, even massive public transportation investments cannot overcome their structural disadvantage. On the other hand, metro areas building denser nodes and expanding public transportation investments can promote changed behavior.
It all comes down to the environment each metro area wants to build.
There is a lot of talk about development planners focusing on “activity centers” – different nodes and neighborhoods throughout towns and cities where people can work, live, shop, dine, and do almost everything without ever having to leave. Did you find in your research that this truly seems to be catching on with more and more people?
Brookings research verified that denser development nodes — whether in central cities or suburbs — led to improved accessibility. So not only does a metropolitan area become more efficient through its employer accessibility, but it creates an environment where more individuals may want to use public transportation.
Two great examples of this are Denver and Salt Lake City. Both cities have made public-transportation investments coordinated with land-use planning. Those metro areas score at the top of Brookings’ performance metrics, and they’ve also witnessed strong increases in public-transportation ridership.
Why do you think that employers seem to disregard transit access when relocating jobs outside the central city?
Brookings research shows that people and jobs continued to decentralize throughout the latter part of the 20th century. This left America with metropolitan economies spread over far more acreage, lowering densities, and lengthening commutes. Simply put, this is not an environment conducive to transit operations.
Fortunately, the most recent decade began to show an end to this decentralizing trend. The youngest generation showed a clear demand for denser environments, often eschewing car ownership in exchange for walking, biking, and transit options. Similarly, reports show the Baby Boomers demanding denser living for their empty-nest and retirement years.
Just how jobs followed people to the suburbs, we expect jobs to follow people to denser nodes. This is especially the case as more commuters opt to take public transportation – employers will need to locate in places rich with automobile and public transportation access.
What would be on your list of the top three things that could be done to make transit more useful in connecting people to their jobs?
Metro areas with the best accessibility ratings provide a playbook of how to make transit work for employers and local residents.
First, places need to continue to invest in transportation infrastructure, whether it is new rail lines in Washington or complimentary bike sharing in Chicago. Second, metro areas need to think regionally and collaboratively. Accessibility is about more than just transportation; accessibility is about a built environment where land use and transportation work in concert. Finally, places need to invest in data infrastructure to empower leaders with better decision-making tools. Smart decisions begin with smart analytics.
Photo courtesy of teaeff