Study: American Jobs Moving Out of Cities, Into Suburbs

A new report finds that 'central business districts' are no longer so central.

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Where have American jobs gone? Some have gone the way of automation. Others have gone overseas. And now, it appears that they're also moving to the suburbs.

From 2000 to 2010, the share of jobs near city centers declined in 91 of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank. As of 2010, 43 percent of jobs were 10 or more miles away from cities' central business districts, compared to the 23 percent of jobs that were within three miles.

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Below are the 10 metro areas that saw the greatest shift in jobs to outer-ring suburbs from 2000 to 2010:

Metro Area Percentage Increase in Outer-Ring Jobs, 2000 to 2010
Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ                                                                                     10.8
San Antonio, TX                                                                                      9.4
Austin-Round Rock, TX                                                                                      7.9
Houston-Baytown-Sugar Land, TX                                                                                      7.8
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX                                                                                      7.7
Oklahoma City, OK                                                                                      7.2
Indianapolis, IN                                                                                      6.9
Memphis, TN-MS-AR                                                                                      6.8
Jacksonville, FL                                                                                      6.6

(Source: Brookings Institution)

The jobs may be moving only a few miles in some cases, but this kind of shift on a massive scale can have consequences for workers, not to mention for the environment and public resources.

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"Low-density, sprawling development can lead to increased energy consumption, strains on infrastructure, longer commute times, and greater challenges connecting workers to employment," says Elizabeth Kneebone, the report's author and a fellow at Brookings.

Several factors contribute to a city's "job sprawl." One is the total number of jobs in a metropolitan area. Cities that have more jobs have a greater share of those jobs in the outer rings. It also matters how fragmented a metropolitan area is. If there are more political units in a metro area, businesses might move away from the city center to a suburb or exurb where tax rates are more favorable, for example.

The recession generally slowed the decentralizaiton process, but Kneebone says that some cities also experienced a "hollowing out," in which city centers lost jobs more quickly than the outer suburb rings.

This kind of job sprawl can mean a much more unpleasant working life. In Washington, D.C., for example, a worker traveling from her home in the northern suburbs, in Maryland, to a job in the southern suburbs, in Virginia, could find herself with an at least 45-minute public transit trip each way. And if that worker is not lucky enough to live or work near the Metro rail system, it could be a much longer trip. Working in or near the city center could cut the commute roughly in half.

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Job decentralization could also make long commutes in cities like New York and D.C., the cities with the longest commutes in the nation, even longer. And while decentralization may move jobs closer to some suburban residents, making jobs less centrally located can also make them less accessible to the broader pool of available workers.

Long commutes bring other problems: health issues like obesity, high blood pressure and stress. Plus, a longer commute means more stress on roadways and public transit.

Commuting is only one part of the equation. Job sprawl can also simply mean fewer employment opportunities for workers without cars or public transit options.

"It raises questions of the low-income residents, and how do they access employment?" says Kneebone.

Still, the report is careful to point out that not all job sprawl has to be bad. Cities will continue to physically grow outward, after all. If city planners and politicians carefully consider how they build, they can create smaller job centers in suburbs that make employment and services more accessible.

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"It can happen in ways that promotes density and mixed use that you can connect to via transit," says Kneebone. "Even as you're going outward, you're finding ways to do it in a dense way."

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