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Metro Detroit’s job sprawl is worst in US, making it difficult for poor to find work – Detroit Free Press

If it seems like it’s taking longer than ever to get to your job in metro Detroit, there’s a good reason.

A new study finds that metro Detroit is the nation’s most sprawled job market, with 77% of jobs located at least 10 miles from the downtown core.

Combined with an earlier Brookings Institution study on access to public transit, a portrait emerges of a metro area where many jobs are located beyond the reach of low-income residents who lack transportation options and often live inside the city.

Besides potentially adding to commute times, a decentralized job market adds to pollution levels.

The Brookings Institution released its new report today showing that only 7.3% of metro Detroit’s roughly 1.4 million jobs lie within three miles of the city’s central business district. Another 15% lie within a 3-to-10-mile band from the downtown core.

The 77% of jobs that are found from 10 miles to 35 miles out — the highest percentage of decentralized jobs in any of the nation’s top 100 metro areas.

The earlier study found that only 22% of jobs in metro Detroit were within even a 90-minute ride on public transit. That ranked metro Detroit 73rd out of 100 top metro areas in the ability of residents to get to work via bus or light rail.

“One of the issues we’re constantly hearing about is there may be jobs out there but people can’t get to them. The fact that we’re so sprawled out does make it extremely difficult,” said Megan Owens, director of the nonprofit group Transportation Riders United, which lobbies for more public transit options in metro Detroit.

Elizabeth Kneebone, one of the authors of the new Brookings study, said the problem of access to work in metro Detroit limits the ability of poor people to move up the economic ladder.

“If they can’t use transit to get where the job opportunities are and they don’t have a reliable car, that can make it that much harder for them to connect with the kinds of opportunities to improve their economic condition,” she said.

Besides limiting economic opportunity for low-income residents, a sprawled-out job market leads to other environmental damage, Kneebone said. “That means more traffic, congestion, a bigger carbon footprint.”

The most recent data in the Brookings study came from the 2010 Census, so it did not capture the recent influx of jobs downtown as Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and other employers have shifted jobs from the suburbs to the city. But even the estimated 10,000 new jobs downtown over the past two years would not have significantly changed Detroit’s ranking.

With nearly 1.4 million jobs in the region, a shift of 10,000 from the suburbs to downtown would amount to less than 1% of the total.

Among specific findings in the Brookings study:

■ Between 2007 and 2010, the years of the Great Recession and its aftermath, 97 of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas lost employment within 35 miles of downtown. Metro Detroit lost 25% of its jobs during that period because of the recession.

■ Jobs sprawl continues nationwide. Of the top 100 metro areas, 91 ended the decade with a lower share of jobs within three miles of downtown than in 2000.

■ In general, the more jobs a metro area has, the more decentralized those jobs tend to be.

■ Beyond employment size, political fragmentation — or the number of jurisdictions within a region — plays a big role in where jobs are found. Jobs tend to locate farther from the city center in places like metro Detroit with more political units, possibly because employers are taking advantage of competition among communities for lower tax rates.

■ Cities that have adopted urban growth boundaries to hem in suburban sprawl, like Honolulu and Salt Lake City, tend to see jobs more concentrated near the urban core.

Contact John Gallagher: or 313-222-5173.

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