Report

Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment

Elizabeth Kneebone

An analysis of the spatial location of private-sector jobs in 98 of the largest metropolitan areas by employment reveals that:

  • Only 21 percent of employees in the top 98 metro areas work within three miles of downtown, while over twice that share (45 percent) work more than 10 miles away from the city center. The larger the metro area, the more likely people are to work more than 10 miles away from downtown; almost 50 percent of jobs in larger metros like Detroit, Chicago, and Dallas locate more than 10 miles away on average compared to just 27 percent of jobs in smaller metros like Lexington-Fayette, Boise, and Syracuse.
  • Job location within metropolitan areas varies widely across industries. More than 30 percent of jobs in utilities, finance and insurance, and educational services industries locate within three miles of downtowns, while at least half of the jobs in manufacturing, construction, and retail are more than 10 miles away from central business districts.
  • Employment steadily decentralized between 1998 and 2006: 95 out of 98 metro areas saw a decrease in the share of jobs located within three miles of downtown. The number of jobs in the top 98 metro areas increased overall during this time period, but the outer-most parts of these metro areas saw employment increase by 17 percent, compared to a gain of less than one percent in the urban core. Southern metro areas were particularly emblematic of the outward shift of job share with a 2.6 percentage-point decline in urban core job share and a 4.8 point gain in the outermost ring, outpacing the 98 metro average (a 2.1 point decline and a 2.6 point gain, respectively).
  • In almost every major industry, jobs shifted away from the city center between 1998 and 2006. Of 18 industries analyzed, 17 experienced employment decentralization. Transportation and warehousing, finance and insurance, utilities, and real estate and rental and leasing showed the greatest increases in the share of jobs located more than 10 miles away from downtown.

Amid changing economic conditions—expansion, contraction, and recovery—during the late 1990s and early 2000s, employment in metropolitan America steadily decentralized. The spatial distribution of jobs has implications for a range of policy issues—from housing to transportation to economic development—and should be taken into account as metro areas work to achieve more productive, inclusive, and sustainable growth and, in the near term, economic recovery. 

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