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The high cost of job sprawl on the American middle class

By Dan Lurie

Jan 23, 2019

Several years ago, the Detroit Free Press highlighted the story of James Robertson, a 56-year-old African American injection molder who commuted 23 miles each way from his home in Detroit to his job in suburban Rochester Hills. Robertson took a public bus for only two of those 23 miles, walking the rest. His commute home, which he started when his car broke down ten years earlier, took a total of four hours.

Mr. Robertson’s long commute, and the fact that he had to walk the majority of that distance, is as an extreme but illustrative example of the phenomenon known as “job sprawl” — land use patterns that, due to an inadequate transportation network, separate jobs from housing. And all too often, it’s low- and middle-wage workers like Mr. Robertson who find themselves with long, costly trips between their job and their home.

Job sprawl happens when employers locate jobs in the suburban periphery, away from mass-transit hubs and far from dense residential areas. It can also happen when, in cities like Atlanta and Detroit, there is insufficient mass transit infrastructure to connect workers to their homes. In these cases, residents living in concentrated poverty do not have access to transportation — like a car or bus or rail line — that can accommodate their commutes.

Since the early 1960s, the geography of employment has changed dramatically. Subsidized gas prices, a disinvestment in transit in favor of roads, racist red-lining policies, federal housing subsidies, and publicly funded relocation incentives for employers all helped push jobs away from city centers and toward the fringes of metropolitan areas.

While some residents of metro regions moved their homes to be closer to those jobs, many other residents — mostly poor and largely African American and Latino — could not relocate. For these workers, the jobs moved but the transit lines didn’t, sentencing low-income residents in core cities to commutes that would have been previously unimaginable. Like Mr. Robertson in Detroit, these people were not facing job and housing “choices” so much as they were part of conscious land-use decisions that put them at an extreme disadvantage.

Job sprawl is not just about urban residents commuting to far-flung suburban jobs. It’s often about poor suburban residents, living in inner-ring suburbs segregated from “high-opportunity” neighborhoods and towns, facing incredibly long — sometimes prohibitively long — commutes across large metropolitan regions. According to the Brookings Institution’s 2013 report on job sprawl, employment decentralization is a key driver of the suburbanization of poverty. In more than 60 percent of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent, and in 55 percent of African American and Latino suburban neighborhoods, jobs are getting farther away — 37 of the 96 largest metro areas enjoyed jobs increases but a decline in proximity to work. For example, jobs in Phoenix and its suburbs grew almost 11 percent since 2000, but the number within commuting distance fell nearly 17 percent.

What would a job sprawl–controlled city look like? Cities like New York, at least until they disinvested in mass transit, offer a glimpse. Areas of New York are reasonably dense, pedestrian-friendly, and offer public transit commutes that are both cheaper and faster than driving one’s own car. These cities enjoy a continuous fabric of neighborhoods and transportation networks that are home to a large percentage of the metro area’s residents, while offering jobs located close to affordable homes.

How can metropolitan regions successfully counteract job sprawl and design a more livable, affordable, and efficient region? Here are some suggested approaches and investments communities can make:

  • Maintain existing mass-transit systems and build more mass transit, such as expanding bus service and suburb-to-suburb rail systems
  • Ensure that mass transit is built near affordable housing, and that affordable housing is built near existing and planned mass transit
  • Provide transportation subsidies to low-income workers facing expensive commutes
  • Allow greater density of residential multifamily housing
  • Enforce fair housing and environmental justice laws, particularly when considering road expansions and extensions
  • Elevate the role of land-use planners in economic policymaking and planning

These investments will not only reduce commute times and make jobs accessible to those who need them most, but they will drive any large-scale effort to combat income inequality and address income stagnation.

Put bluntly, job sprawl shows yet again that it is expensive to be poor. Residents affected by job sprawl face the unpalatable choice of extraordinarily burdensome commutes or missing out on an otherwise available job. And for those who choose the long commute, there are usually high transportation costs to go with it: car maintenance, gas, and tolls. But for many, the highest cost is the lost time and the toll it takes on family commitments and one’s own quality of life. Choosing between a job and a family is not a choice that Americans should have to make.


Dan Lurie is Senior Fellow and Director of the national think tank New America’s Chicago office. He previously served as Deputy Director of Policy for Vice President Biden and at the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Housing of Urban Development and the Chicago Transit Authority.