My Commute: 1.9 Miles

I could drive a Caterpillar D6 to work and still use less fuel than most folks do in their commute.  That is because I choose to work less than 2 miles from my office, out here in the northern suburbs of Phoenix (and, when it is not 110 degrees out, there is a bike path that takes a more direct route that is even shorter).  There is no place I would choose to live anywhere near the central business district of Phoenix;  if my job was downtown, rather than in my suburban neighborhood, my commute would increase to sixty minutes per day rather than six.

So, I wonder why the movement of jobs from city centers to suburbs has the Brookings folks so upset.  If your remember, urban planning types lamented the move of homes to the suburbs, saying this increased commuting time and energy use.  Now that the jobs are moving out to the suburbs as well, close to where people actually live (rather than where the planners want them to live), this increases gas use and commute times as well?

Since 1998, almost every major American metro area has seen a drop in the share of employment located downtown as jobs have increasingly moved into farther-out suburbs, exacerbating "job sprawl" "“ a phenomenon that threatens to undermine the long-term prosperity of the nation's vital economic engines, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution.
...
""˜People sprawl' has long been known for its effect on the environment, infrastructure, tax base, quality of life, and more. Now, we must recognize what "˜job sprawl' means for the economic health of the nation," stated Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and senior research analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program.

"The location of jobs is also important to the larger discussion about growing the number of jobs," said Robert Puentes, a Brookings senior fellow. "Allowing jobs to shift away from city
centers hurts economic productivity, creates unsustainable and energy inefficient development, and limits access to underemployed workers."

The economic productivity argument has me totally flummoxed.  Are they really arguing that companies purposely reduce their own productivity and access to labor?  Why?  This makes no sense, and as the Anti-Planner points out, goes totally unproven in their study.

The only possible argument I can see is a government one, that somehow suburb infrastructure by being more spread out is more costly per person than urban infrastructure.  But this is a point that has never been well proven, and is a classic case of looking at just one variable in an multi-variate system.  Sure, I would guess the total miles of sewer pipe and roads per person is greater in the suburbs than the city.  But the cost of land acquisition, infrastructure construction, and maintenance are all lower.  It is not at all clear how these balance, and the authors do not even try to figure it out.  I would be surprised if the government infrastructure costs per person in, say, Scottsdale is really higher than in Manhattan.

In fact, if there is an issue here, it strikes me it is more a government pricing issue than a demographic issue.  If government is somehow taking a loss on suburban vs. urban infrastructure, then it needs to rethink its tax structure to appropriately set property taxes and fees to match actual costs.  But I think we all know that this is NOT the problem.  Where suburbs are separate cities from the inner cities, those cities tend to have lower taxes and healthier budgets than their inner city cousins, giving the lie to the statement that suburban infrastructure is somehow more expensive (or, as a minimum, that any increase in costs are more than offset by other cost advantages to government of the suburbs).

And all this ignores the individual rights issue of why government should be influencing the shape of people's living and commuting choices at all.  Note the very suggestive words in the Brookings press release -- "Allowing jobs to shift away from city centers hurts economic productivity," as if the location of my employees requires government approval.   It's amazing to me that the children of the sixties grew up to be such control freaks.

  • Good article, thanks alot for the info.

  • Rick C

    This is just kind of a drive-by comment, as I haven't read the post fully yet, but this caught my attention: "So, I wonder why the movement of jobs from city centers to suburbs has the Brookings folks so upset."

    Isn't the answer that they want us all to live in apartment towers downtown?

  • Les

    I think it's more technocratic impulse that sees the 'sprawl' as a bad thing. After all how are we to get to our 'Crystal Spires and Togas' future if there are no spires, just vast fields of one-to-two story buildings?

    Americans love Space, we like freedom to roam, to stretch-out, to be able to do what we want in our own living-rooms without hearing someone banging against the ceiling from the other side yelling 'Keep it down in there!'. This goes contrary to the technocratic impulse for 'efficency' and loathing of 'wasted space'. For awhile I had posited this as a chief reason why SUVs and Pickup-trucks were becoming more and more popular with people whose living conditions and lifestyles rendered much of their practical function useless; a modern luxury car may make the engineer designing it drool over the way it wraps coccoon-like around it's occupants, but an SUV has elbow-room.. Glorious Elbow-Room!

  • sam

    Isn't it obvious? Cities are full of tax-eaters (welfare recipients, welfare state workers) and suburbs are full of tax-payers.

    Without tax-payers, what will the tax-eaters eat?

  • Aaron

    Coyote,

    I grew up in Phoenix but have lived in Chicago for the past 4 years while doing a BA at the University of Chicago. Recently we threw a party, and an acquaintance who had graduated the year before showed up. He was living in a small-ish town outside the city, working in their "Urban Planning" office. Our friendly conversation about Chicago vs. Phoenix quickly turned into a full-on debate about urban planning. A few highlights:

    1. It's amazing how urban planners (who are overwhelmingly to the left in my limited experience) think it's A-OK to impose their aesthetic preferences on the rest of us as if they were moral imperatives. My acquaintance mocked the idea of having a car in an urban environment and said that being a city where "you can't walk about" and need private transportation to access amenities or work is spiritually decaying. It is the job of urban planners to prevent this, thereby making everyone "happier" and the city more "vibrant."

    2. There is a definite element of urban snobbery as well. I pointed out the out-migration from big cities such as New York and Chicago as well as other urbanized states in the Rust Belt toward cities like Phoenix indicated a problem with his "spiritual fulfillment" theory of urban planning. "Nonsense," he scoffed, because Phoenix and other cities like it "aren't real cities." By that he meant that cities without super-dense downtown areas and top-flight ballet companies simply aren't as enjoyable as cities that have those things. He used that proposition to argue that the growth of the Sun Belt is a mirage, and that northern cities are actually perfectly healthy. The mind boggles.

    3. This was not directly raised in our conversation, but have you noticed the interesting cycle created by modern urban planning? First, high taxes, dubious social policies, and anti-business initiatives pushed productive people to the suburbs and left the inner cities rotting. The tax revenues fell and crime shot up, so urban planners started making expensive investments in "cool" amenities and other attractions downtown. Though often financed by debt or other doubtful fiscal measures, land prices in cities like Chicago are back on the rise, and the inner cities are starting to attract yuppies again. This is pushing the poor out to the outer neighborhoods and in some cases the suburbs, further chasing those residents back into the city. I have no doubt the urban planners will soon begin milking the inner city residents just as they did some decades ago, starting the cycle again. Who really benefits? Powerful, politically connected real estate developers.

  • DrTorch

    Excellent analysis by the author, and I would love to see the actual numbers on tax structures.

    I appreciate Aaron's comments as well.

    The one factor that I will give sympathy to urban planners is this: reparing and refiting infrastructure (roads, sewers, power lines) is often more expensive than building the first time. Thus, Gilbert or Chandler can start off bright and shiny, but they too may need more funds to maintain their infrastructure.

    Maybe the problem is that planners ignore this, and are too eager to build new structures that also have recurring costs, rather than _plan_ ahead for the inevitable costs of maintenance and replacement. I'd like to see the numbers on this.

  • Allen

    I haven't had a chance to look at the paper linked to yet. I would like to since this shift in jobs isn't anything new. If this was 1980 and we were talking about it, sure. But it was long ago clear that the landscape was not only shifting but had actually permanently changed. Of course by permanently I don't mean forever. Cuz as Prince taught us, forever is a mightly long time. But there's no end in sight to this change whether it comes to where people live or where people work.

    As for why this is upsetting for them, I suspect it's because it means that what they want to see, more density and more actual use of density, is unlikely to occur anytime in their lifetimes. Now that doesn't mean that we won't notice some increased density in a few select areas nor continue to see billions spent on light rail lines. But if most people are working in the suburbs it's unlikely that they'll be using any of that transit anytime soon. It's more difficult for transit to serve less dense suburban locations well. And that makes it all the less likely that people will use it. With minimal lot sizes and little if any political desire for density in the suburbs it makes it unlikely that anything meaningful will change for density there. And with more jobs locating in the suburbs, it makes it all the more likely that people will want to be somewhat close to their jobs and also locate themselves in the suburbs.

    I've lived in core urban cities most of my adult life. I'm not sure why Brookings sees them as more efficient nor why if Brookings is familiar with them they'd think employers would be attracted to them nor why they feel they can lead to more density. Inner cities have NIMBYs just like everywhere else. They push for the same minimal zoning that you find in the suburbs. What residential construction that does occur is plagued by inefficiencies and risks. So what does occur is that's out of reach for most people. A $400k mortgage on top of $300 /month dues for a 2 bedroom condo isn't going to work for most people. But those prices are needed to make the risks for it. For example, a condo project next door to me took over 5 years to design build and finally start selling homes. They had to incur a variety of design changes including preserving an old house that not only occupies space that another 10-20 units could've used to spread out costs but has no historical value other than it's old (and at that, it's right across the street from of a historical district that preserves hundreds of old homes from the 1880s-1900s; not like they're in short supply). During this process they go from a decent market, to a great market, to one where they could sell anything to one where it's damn tough to sell anything.

    As for jobs, I'm not sure why companies would want to locate downtown. For most people when looking for work, having to work downtown is a minus. For example, I know two people who recently took jobs downtown. If they had other choices, they wouldn't have taken them because their commutes are a royal pain in the rear. Employers don't want to loose out on talented employees so why locate someplace that makes it more difficult to obtain the talent they need to be successful?

  • Allen

    Aaron --> I'm with you on the expenses. What is my reward for living in the core city, a mile or so from downtown? My city has it's own income tax. It's failing schools have gotten 3 tax increases in the last 10 years and are still crap and arguably failing. I live in a small, old apartment. My property taxes are higher. I have to deal with people parking in my parking spot, one I pay for each month, once a month. Theft from auto is a constant threat (thank god I haven't had anyone bust my car window but I do make a concerted effort to leave nothing in my car, especially out in the open, to reduce that risk; that means carrying stuff up my 10 flights more often than I'd like). And for what? A great central library that I rarely use? The opera, ballet, sympathy orchestra, hockey, basketball, football, and museums that I rarely ever go to? As for my jobs (contracting; software engineer), only 3 of 10 in the last decade have been nearby in the city. As for congestion, driving to anything during rush hour is a pain. But that grocery store that I bike to is a mile away. If I drive, I combine hitting it with some other stores. If I bike and I still need to get something from KMart, the hardware store or someplace else beside the grocery store I have to make multiple trips. Not only because I can't leave my stuff in the car while I go into the grocery store, but as big of a basket I have for my bike, my space is limited. Multiple trips mean more time spent doing the little things in life and less time to do contract work on the side (that is, less income).

    Obviously I wouldn't live here if there weren't some things I didn't like. But as a whole not living here in the city wouldn't be much of a loss as it offers plenty of pluses.

  • Orthogonal Vision

    The Brookings people are upset because large cities are filled with low wage, low skilled jobs that rather than migrate out to suburbs, just disappear and those resulting unemployed have neither the resources to move out to the suburbs, nor even commute to the suburbs for work. The result is an increasing welfare load against decreasing tax revenues.

    Big cities suffer from the situation that you either have to be very poor or very rich to live there. No middle class. The migration of jobs out of the city means a declining revenue base that is slowly becoming a death spiral. With relatively cheap personal transportation (if you have a job) and the internet to connect you to the world, big cities have lost a lot of what made them big in the first place.

    We do have a problem in this country dealing with legacy issues; we just can't seem to allow anything to wither away and die (investment banks, auto manufacturers, big cities, etc.).

  • I have three plausible answers, the first two hinge on a simple fact - urban centers tend to be far more liberal than the suburbs:

    1st - The move from the city centers means lower tax bases for all those enlightened policies.

    2nd - There are far more suburban governments than urban governments, too many people to effectively influence, resulting in less control over the businesses in question.

    3rd - It defeats a fair number of liberal hobby horses: mass transit being the main one of note.

  • This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I have been involved in various forms of real estate, from appraisal to development to sales for the last decade in both the SF Bay Area and Chicago. Aaron's comment especially touched a nerve. When I was a commercial appraiser in the Bay area and was giving value to land for development, I would always call the planning department to gauge their feelings to make sure they wouldn't scuttle the project. Working in development in the Chicago area, I dealt with some suburban municipalities. The absolute arrogance of some of some of the people working in planning departments never ceased to shock me. They often treated developers as if they had bottomless pockets and would make arbitrary decisions on the level of landscaping for projects without any real reference to health, safety, or even sometimes the building code. (This is not to say that the larger city planners aren't as bad). Some municipalities would make things so difficult and then wonder why no one would build particular property types in their areas of control.

    I've never understood the great snobbery towards suburbs. First of all, they are so varied that they just can't be labeled with one word. Second of all, that they have become centers for jobs (which is at least a decade old phenomena) is a good thing. I don't think it's good to have everything centralized. The personal irony for me is that I live at the edge of Grant Park in downtown Chicago. I like living in a very urban setting (as opposed to my rural upbringing). I'm not one for the burbs, but I can certainly see the advantages they can have over denser city living. I sometimes wonder if the snobbery that some feel for the burbs is just a self-justification for their own decision to stay there. Of course that doesn't explain the many people I have met that live in the city and came from the burbs and loudly declare how it was such a boring, aweful place to grow up (please ignore their current success). I always imagine these folks will soon return once a family is formed.

    The final great irony is that as a whole, this country is urbanizing on a vast scale. The reason you see things like bears in the burbs in New Jersey or cougars (the four legged kind) in the streets of Chicago is that we are abandoning the countryside on a large scale. The rural northern Missouri county I grew up in is a quarter the population it was 90 years ago. Most of my high school friends no live in the suburbs of north Kansas City which has become a repository for the exiles from North West Missouri. Likewise, many of the newer suburbs of Chicago aren't products of 'white flight' from the city but from country folks moving to the city. When you hear some commenter decrying the loss of all our farm land, rest assure that he is operating from the selection bias of his own commute and has been failing to take a peak out his window when flying over the country.

  • Les

    @ Orthogonal Vision:

    I think a more worthwhile social program would be one to help move people below the poverty line living in dense urban centers with few prospects out to places where there is more demand for whatever skills they have or can easily learn and cost-of-living is much less.. but no government would ever support such a program because that would essentially mean one politician would be 'gifting' their voters to another.

  • ddbb

    ". . .creates unsustainable and energy inefficient development. . ."

    On an unrelated note, can we please, please, please, one thousand times please, retire the word "unsustainable." It no longer means anything other than "I don't like whatever I just called 'unsustainable.'"

  • Matthew Brown

    I think that those who stated that the planners don't like it because it doesn't feed their mass-transit fantasies are dead on. Particularly, it doesn't fit light rail, and light rail is fantasy #1 for them. It fits a bus service just fine, which gives more people what they want anyway.

    I love trains. I don't think that light rail is the answer in most American cities. Streetcars and electric interurbans died off by and large for good economic reasons; the fantasy that they died because Big Bad General Motors killed them off has little basis in reality. At most, in a few areas, bus companies took over the last remaining train companies, which were in their death spirals, and finished them off.

    And these streetcars and electric interurbans were by and large private companies, built by investors who sought to make a profit, and constructed at minimal expense. Today's urban "light rail" isn't deserving of the term; the average "light rail" line costs more to construct than the Union Pacific main line, per mile.