Risks of Job Sprawl and Progress on Regional Planning

By Frank Teng

Frank Teng is a current MBA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and is on the board of Sustainable Silicon Valley. He works with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm, to manage global energy and sustainability programs for corporate clients in the technology and financial services sectors. Please note: Frank's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

Cities, People, and Jobs

Sometimes cities are faced with disasters that strike unpredictably and quickly, leading to long recovery and many resources focused on future preparation. Other times cities create the conditions for disaster through a buildup of decisions that compound over time. Urban sprawl is often decried for causing traffic congestion, blight, and environmental degradation, to the detriment of a city’s quality of life. Job sprawl might be just as detrimental and even dangerous for a city according to Paul Krugman in his comparison between Detroit’s recent bankruptcy and Pittsburgh, a city which is rebounding from the recession.

As the Brookings Institution pointed out in a report released in April, job sprawl around Detroit created inequitable access for primarily low-income residents living in the urban core. With 77% of jobs found from 10 to 35 miles outside the city, the highest percentage in the nation, and only 22% of jobs within a 90-minute ride on public transit, there was a dearth of opportunity. Essentially this one-two punch of urban and job sprawl led pension obligations to outpace a drastically declining property and income tax base, as sprawl drew people out of the city. This cautionary tale highlights the need for coordinated planning and infrastructure—otherwise smart cities can leave themselves vulnerable to downward spirals.

Sustainable Communities lead to resiliency and improved public health

As last week’s passage of the regional Plan Bay Area demonstrates, when agencies and cities work together they can succeed in developing an integrated housing and transportation land use plan to handle an influx of 2 million residents over 30 years. With no new sprawl, preservation of open space, reduction in greenhouse gas intensity, and incentives for inclusive, transit-oriented and transit-innovative development, this plan definitely moves in the right direction. Certainly it could target greater greenhouse gas reductions. But the important step is in setting a vision of vibrant downtown communities sprinkled throughout the region, which will no doubt lead to further greenhouse gas reductions. Cultural transformation won’t change overnight, but by designating 160 priority development areas in the Bay Area, the Sustainable Communities Plan for the region is a standout among those already completed among the 18 metropolitan areas of California.

Bringing people closer to job and transit centers in this way is critical. The San Francisco Bay Area faces $18 billion in budget shortfalls simply to maintain the current transportation systems, including streets and transit, over the next 25 years. Walkable, integrated communities can help mitigate this budget shortfall, though of course they won’t be able to solve it.

Consequences of sprawl

Increasing recognition that urban sprawl leads to negative health effects also supports the case for walkable, transit-centric cities and communities. Effects of urban expansion in general are leading to record air pollution and resource depletion as shown in China’s mounting environmental costs. As our desk-based, sedentary lifestyles have created a panoply of medical conditions, people are turning to anything that gets us moving, from treadmill desks to company competitions between groups armed with flashy new pedometers. Meanwhile, according to a study by the Journal of Injury Prevention, the further you live from the city center, the higher your risk of injury-related death, almost up to threefold in the most rural areas.

With development occurring in a more focused manner, people may be more inclined to live car-free, but how do products and services reach them? A recent report points out that self-driving trucks potentially present a bigger business opportunity than self-driving cars (and arguably are a more sustainable alternative). Improvements in truck safety and efficiency could help reduce the 116,000 annual fatalities and injuries in the U.S. from truck and bus crashes (costing $87 billion). For some reason, tanker trucks have been especially visible in causing large damage and congestion for the very drivers they are fueling, as depicted by the 2011 tanker truck crash on I-880 in Oakland and last week’s tanker crash on I-5 in Los Angeles.

It’s a good reminder that smart growth can ensure cities grow and prosper in ways that improve the health and safety of their residents. However, cities will continue to face both financial and practical challenges in serving increasingly mobile and dense populations, and the search continues for cost effective and integrated solutions.

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