Saturday, October 10, 2015

Which should we fight harder, job sprawl or housing sprawl?

Eric Jaffe had a good review of a University of Denver study about job sprawl. The study shows, basically, that if you make transit more convenient to people's jobs (or vice versa), they're less likely to drive to work than if you make it more convenient to their homes.

Thinking about it, that makes sense. If you own a car, you're much more likely to want to keep it at your end of the transit line than at the work end. Is there even anyone who lives in the city, keeps a car overnight in, say, North White Plains, and drives it to work in the sprawl every morning? I tried to think of actual economic or legal disincentives to this, but the real answer seems to be more primal: a car is a big expensive thing that you paid for, and you want it at the home end of the train line.

What I'm a bit less sold on is where the study authors, Gregory Kwoka, Eric Boschmann and Andrew Goetz, go from here. As Sandy Johnston highlights in a blog post, they also look at "non-work related personal trips" and conclude that working near a transit station is a bigger factor for determining whether you drive for those trips than living near a transit station is.

I can kind of see it. If you work in Manhattan, or even in downtown Denver, you're more likely to walk over to Walgreens or the Gap to pick up some necessities before you hop on the train home. You might meet friends or a date in the city after work. You might even buy groceries. On the weekend you might take the train into the city to go to a museum.

On the other hand, if you take transit out to the sprawl, you're probably just going to take transit right back rather than trying to walk around. But what I have a hard time with is the idea that when you get off the train from the sprawl and walk to your house, then you're going to get right in your car and drive to the supermarket or your kid's school or your AA meeting. I can't really see any of the New York drivers I know doing this. I know some who live in walkable communities, take the train to work in Manhattan, and then drive around on the weekends, but any car owners who live someplace walkable and work someplace not so walkable pretty much drive to work.

My guess is that this part of the study is a quirk of Denver geography. When I was last in Denver, they had only built part of the first light rail line, and there were some stations that didn't have much around them besides housing. Maybe there are a lot of stations where there isn't a supermarket or even a deli on the walk home from the train. Maybe these people live a short walk from the station but drive there anyway because there's a huge "free" park-and-ride.

I'm also not sure how this affects the land use and public investment cycles. In my experience, transit riders who don't own cars tend to be relatively strong advocates for dense development patterns as well as investment in transit and pedestrian infrastructure. People who take the train to work but drive evenings and weekends tend to identify as drivers and support sprawl zoning and investments in highways and parking lots. And sadly, even people who take transit or walk most of the time, but keep a car in the garage to drive to their country house in Vermont every few weeks, tend to identify as drivers and vote like drivers.

I think the best conclusion is that job sprawl is a slightly bigger problem than housing sprawl, but housing sprawl matters too. And even vacation sprawl matters.


David Hochman said...

I wonder if this discussion misses an important confounding factor. Most practicing economic-development professionals know that one of the best predictors of corporate location is minimization of the CEO's driving time. It may be that once housing is sprawled, work sprawl is inevitable.

NickD said...

Only about 25% of Toronto area residents commute to downtown Toronto by car, and the percentage is similar whether they live in the inner suburbs or outer suburbs. Only for downtown-downtown commutes is the number significantly lower... no surprise there considering the short distances.

I don't have access to the exact data, but based on the information that was available to me, I deduced that about 46% of downtown residents who work outside downtown commute to work by car.
That suggests that it's more important for jobs to be located near transit than for housing. Although maybe it's more about how well the jobs are served by transit relative to how well they are served by cars.

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

If you just have residential sprawl, which is what most American cities were like in the streetcar days, then it still works *OK* because pretty much everyone is going to and from downtown for work, shopping, and play. Thus a radial transit network serves that travel demand, though with the caveat that there's a lot of peak loading issues. I suppose it's theoretically possible that you could have a downtown residential nexus with all the jobs sprawled out, and while I think it would technically work from a transit perspective, it would be less viable because businesses couldn't cluster nor could you achieve the "one stop shopping" aspect of downtown.

I think in general the biggest issue is double-sprawl (residential and job together). In this case, everyone lives everywhere and works everywhere, so there's never enough overlapping of trips between any two destination points for transit to work. That is unless the city is so densely populated that sheer numbers allow the development of a fully gridded transit system like you see in Paris, London, or Tokyo.

neroden@gmail said...

I should point out that job sprawl is crazy. From the point of view of the businesses.

There are documented advantages for commercial businesses to *clustering*. It's one of the best-documented economic phenomena and dates back thousands and thousands of years. Sprawling, for a commercial business, is equivalent to "reducing your revenues". If you're a shoe store, you want to be next to other shoe stores, so that a customer frustrated with one shoe store will try you out. Same with a restaurant, same with any other business.

Industrial back-end businesses -- with strictly wholesale sales, no retail -- have less incentive to cluster but there are still documented advantages to it. Being able to walk across the street to your suppliers and customers is very valuable.

So job sprawl is crazy. There must be some very strong government intervention which is causing job sprawl. And I think it's zoning, which prohibits opening new commercial and industrial businesses next to the existing ones. Because "that side of the street is zoned residential!"

NickD said...

Zoning may be part of it, but I think another government intervention is the one that creates cheap land with little congestion and upper-middle class suburbs at the periphery - the building and upkeep of an abundant number roads and freeways.