THE BLOG
11/03/2014 08:41 am ET Updated Jan 03, 2015

How Suburban Sprawl, Inadequate Transit Worsen Unemployment

Recently laid-off workers who live far from job centers take longer to find replacement employment than do residents of neighborhoods more convenient to jobs by public transit or car. So says new, meticulously thorough research published by the U.S. Census.

It's easy to grasp why poorly planned, haphazard suburban sprawl is bad for the environment: disconnected, spread-out subdivisions eat up watersheds and wildlife habitat while forcing people to drive ever-longer distances to get things done. Public transportation becomes inconvenient at best, and totally inaccessible to many. Increased automobile dependence is why per-household carbon emissions are so much higher on the metropolitan fringe than in closer-in neighborhoods.

More hidden, though, are the economic consequences of sprawl, such as rising costs for the construction and maintenance of extended infrastructure and the burdens of increased transportation costs on household budgets.

More hidden still are the economic consequences of households being located at long distances, inadequately served by public transit, from job centers. For the employed, it means longer and more inconvenient commutes. But, for the unemployed, in too many cases it means you can't get to the job you need at all because you can't afford the costs of car ownership and inadequate public transit simply doesn't connect you to where you need to go.

This works both ways: people living on the fringe can't conveniently get to jobs in the center or in a suburb. People living in the center can't get to hard-to-reach suburban jobs. In other words, both housing sprawl and job sprawl cause problems. In the academic literature, this is referred to as "spatial mismatch" of job-seekers and job-providers. The oft-cited remedy is "jobs-housing balance," or adequate affordable housing located near jobs that residents need, reachable by public transit.

This has long made intuitive sense, but now there's proof: Angie Schmitt, writing in Streetsblog USA, reports that a thorough new study by researchers at the US Census Bureau, the Comptroller of the Currency, and Harvard University confirms that "geographic barriers to employment -- sprawl, suburban zoning, poor transit - do indeed depress employment levels."

I took a look at the study report, which was published earlier this year by the Census Bureau's Center for Economic Studies. More specifically, the research looked at a sample of 247,000 Midwestern lower-income "workers who have experienced an involuntary job displacement" because of mass layoffs, and how long they remained unemployed. The researchers also used local travel data to model commute times by both car and transit to job centers from neighborhoods where the displaced workers' residences were located. They found a significant relationship between the displaced workers' relative accessibility to job centers and the duration of unemployment.

The researchers considered how long the job search took for three categories of new jobs: any job; a job with 75 percent of previous job earnings; and a job with 90 percent of previous job earnings. The study was exceptionally well-controlled and complex, eliminating factors that could contaminate the results. Job-seekers at the 25th percentile of the authors' accessibility index were found to take 7 percent longer to find a job that replaces at least 90 percent of their previous earnings than those at the 75th percentile. (Significant disadvantages for unemployed workers with relatively poor accessibility were also found with respect to all jobs and jobs replacing 75 percent of previous earnings.)

Certain segments of the population were found to be particularly disadvantaged by poor accessibility. In the authors' words:

"Our results support the spatial mismatch hypothesis. We find that better job accessibility significantly decreases the duration of joblessness among lower-paid displaced workers ... While job accessibility is only one of many factors affecting job search outcomes, it appears to play an especially important role for blacks, who have long been a focus of this research area. We find that blacks are approximately 71, 15, and 35 percent more sensitive to job accessibility than white job seekers for these three hiring measures respectively. We also find that job accessibility is especially important for females and older workers."

Put another way, the more convenient an unemployed workers' home was to job centers, the less time it took to find an acceptable new job. The implied admonition to land use planners is to encourage more affordable residential development near job centers and within walking distance of public transit that can reach job centers.

An unsigned article in The Economist was particularly articulate in discussing the findings:

"All this has big policy implications. Some suggest that governments should encourage companies to set up shop in areas with high unemployment. That is a tall order: firms that hire unskilled workers often need to be near customers or suppliers. A better approach would be to help workers either to move to areas with lots of jobs, or at least to commute to them. That would involve scrapping zoning laws that discourage cheaper housing, and improving public transport. The typical American city dweller can reach just 30 percent of jobs in their city within 90 minutes on public transport. That is a recipe for unemployment."

This is a complex subject, to say the least. When it comes to unemployment, many factors are at play, from macroeconomic forces to lack of needed skills. There is no single answer. But this study suggests that cities and regions with good accessibility between homes and jobs are best positioned to help their residents.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Huffington Post and in other national media. Kaid's latest book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

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