Why Upstate NY Will Lose The Amazon Sweepstakes

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In a sweepstakes more anticipated than LeBron’s 2010 “Decision,” retail supergiant Amazon will eventually decide on a US city to house its second headquarters, a project that will bring a reported 50,000 jobs and an average salary of $100,000 to one lucky region.  Boston, Washington DC, Dallas, Houston, Denver, and dozens of other large cities have all been mentioned in the mix, along with smaller cities like Rochester and regions like Central New York.  Without a doubt, every state, county and city in the United States is ready to throw every resource they have at decision makers to ensure that they have a shot at landing this unheard of opportunity to become a hub for mass employment.

Last week, CityLab (among others) published an article highlighting one of Amazon’s key requirements; “Direct access to rail, train, subway and bus routes.”  Amazon has been vocal that the “winning” city must have an already established wealth of transit options to ensure that the massive facility will not overwhelm existing auto and transit infrastructure.  Unfortunately, in an Upstate New York where nearly every city is built for convenient automobile travel with minimal transit investment, we likely have already been eliminated.  Ironically, while so many curse our high taxes and “unfriendly” business environment, the thing that might exclude us from a spot at the table is a lack of foresight with regard to sustainable urban planning.

Riders disembark from the QLine streetcar in Detroit on a Friday evening

Amazon’s desire for a strong transit network (which by the way is based on the fact that you simply cannot effectively park 50,000 cars every day) is a prime example of how important it is for our cities to anticipate the needs of future job producers beyond simple tax incentives.  Today’s competitive cities recognize that jobs are grown from a rich commitment to human-based amenities like effective transit, public space, access to healthcare, education and affordable housing.  These are all qualities that Amazon will look for in its HQ2 host city, as well as its workforce.

Chicago’s “complete streets” initiative blends bus rapid transit lanes (red), bike lanes (green) and iconic stations with regular traffic in the downtown “Loop” area.  This piece of connectivity augments an already robust rail system.

So why is transit so important to Amazon?  There are a number of reasons, the most obvious being that 30,000-50,000 commuters each day put an incredible strain on any existing road and transit infrastructure.  Even parking would be a serious issue.  To handle that many people in and out of the facility each day, the chosen city would need a wealth of robust transit options to dilute the effect of traffic on streets and minimize the need for costly on-site parking.  Without transit, the streets of Rochester, Utica, Rome, or any other Upstate city would likely fall victim to a level of congestion never seen before.

What does that mean for a city like Rochester?  Ironically, as RTS recently announced a plan to rethink its bus routes to maximize efficiency, convenience and access, I have personally heard countless residents say “we don’t need better transit, we need more jobs.”  Alas, the archaic misconception that urban growth and redesign should follow employer commitment rather than precede and welcome it is alive and well.

Upstate New York will likely be passed over by Amazon, and it likely has little to do with taxes.  We must accept that, unfortunately, most Upstate cities have been slow to adapt to the changing needs of today’s major employers, as well as the desires and demands of a changing workforce demographic.  If we lose the Amazon sweepstakes, the valuable consolation will be the opportunity to reflect on how important it is to anticipate the changing needs of residents and employers.  Amazon won’t be the only job producer looking to expand over the next decade, so it’s time for Upstate New York to realize one of the most important rules of business:

Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.