When urbanists talk about “sprawl,” we are typically referring to the movement of people and families away from urban centers and into homogeneous, socioeconomically exclusive suburban areas. One of the many major detractors of sprawl is the inability for transit systems to service large distances without compromising service to areas where residential density is high.
Rarely, however, do we talk about the tremendous burden of employment sprawl on our transit networks. As people have moved outward from our city centers, so too have jobs. Furthermore, with the movement from a industrial nation to a service-oriented one, jobs are more likely to follow population growth, which continues to be away from urban cores.
In my home city of Rochester, New York, Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb accounted for 60% of the city’s employment, and most of those jobs were downtown or within city limits in the mid 1980s. By 2012, that number was down to 6%. And while The University of Rochester/Strong Memorial Hospital, Rochester General Hospital, Rochester Institute of Technology and Paychex, among other companies, have grown to become some of our city’s most fruitful employers, their physical locations are far from “centralized.” While an enormous percentage of Rochester’s jobs were within a few city blocks of each other in the mid 1980s, the city’s top employers are now scattered within a 6-7 mile radius of the city’s center.
The above map represents most of Rochester’s top 12 employer locations. Many employers, like Wegmans and Tops grocers, have multiple locations, which is why there are more than 12 markers. The red markers indicate the 4 major “campuses” of employment… Rochester General Hospital, University of Rochester and Strong Hospital, and RIT. Note that over ten miles (as the crow flies, far more by car or transit) separates these major job producers, and none of them are within walking distance of Rochester’s transit hub which is located in the heart of Rochester’s downtown.
Not only have we lost tens of thousands of downtown jobs, the transition from an industrial society to a service-oriented economy in the last 50-60 years means that so many of the jobs that remain must be where people live and use their services, and typically these areas are where the wealthiest citizens reside. This causes further disconnect between our poorest citizens and job opportunities, and puts even more strain on transit systems that must connect the two.
Rochester’s RTS bus system has the impossible task of matching a relatively low density population (shown above) with a sprawling jobs landscape. When homes and jobs are both centralized, it places far less of a burden on our city’s resources. When population sprawls but our major employers are centralized, our transit network is stretched, but it still has the ability to “funnel” workers into a common employment hub every day.
But when jobs and households sprawl away from a common center, like in Rochester, our transit networks have almost no chance to provide the kind of service that we desire. If we think in terms of a fishing net, the positives of density are like catching 500 fish in a 100 square foot net. But when those fish “sprawl,” we may need a 500 square foot net to catch just as many fish, which costs more money and uses more resources (please forgive the simplicity of the metaphor, as I know nothing about fishing!). The more residents and jobs move away from a common center, the more exponential strain is incurred by our transit networks, which means diminished capacity for a high level of service.
It’s not just about density… it’s about centralization of living, working and playing (forgive the eye-rolling “live/work/play” reference, but it applies here). When we live far apart, it strains our resources, especially transit. When our homes and our employers continue to push away from a central location, our community resources are pushed to their limits as well. In a city like Rochester where a quarter of the households don’t own a car, this has a profoundly negative impact on equity, upward mobility, access to employment, health care, education and more.
When we create cities that sprawl so badly that the only way to access jobs and resources is by car, we create environments that our poorest citizens have no way to transcend. We create urban centers that our youngest transit-hungry generations want nothing to do with. We reinforce financial and spacial inefficiency, pushing us farther away from the goal of financial solvency. And frankly, without a strong urban core, we lose a piece of our identity, our local pride, and our love for where we live.
Why do we push so hard for strong downtowns? Why do we advocate so strongly for centralized living? Because the sprawl of our homes and our jobs hurts all of us, and this will never change until we truly understand exactly how much it damages the fabric of our communities.