In the nation’s major metropolitan areas, a shift has long been underway in which jobs have moved out from an urban core to the suburbs or exurbs, a phenomenon some have dubbed “job sprawl.”
But a new analysis by the Brookings Institution found that migration away from Washington stalled between 2000 and 2010. Out of the 100 areas examined by Brookings, the D.C. region was the only one that added jobs in its urban center and was one of just nine to see its share of jobs increase there.
The growth in the urban center came at the expense of the inner suburbs, whose share of the region’s jobs fell 1.7 percent. The outer suburbs, meanwhile, still remain a potent job engine. The largest share of jobs in the Washington area in 2010, 47.1 percent, were located between 10 and 35 miles from the District, up from 45.5 percent in 2000.
But the report found that the recession greatly slowed the outward movement of employment. The greatest job losses overall between 2007 and 2010 were in sectors such as construction and retail, and many of those positions tend to be located in fast-growing areas away from a region’s center. Accordingly, the weakness in those industries weighed especially heavily on job growth in a metropolitan area’s outer ring, the study found.
“We saw the pause button hit on these trends, but no significant reversals of longer running patterns,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, the author of the study and fellow at the metropolitan policy program at Brookings.
The pattern is also likely influenced by the population boom that the Washington area saw during that decade, in which new residents largely flocked to the urban center.
“With people increasingly wanting to live near where they work, that’s increasingly one of the biggest draws” of jobs in and around the District, said James Bohnaker, associate economist with Moody’s Analytics.
The Brookings study found the share of jobs in a region’s outermost ring increased in 85 metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2010, evidence that jobs have become increasingly decentralized since the turn of the century. “Job sprawl” is a term that some economists and urban planners use to describe such movement, when jobs are distributed further from a region’s nucleus.
Decentralization of jobs can have either a positive or negative effect on a metropolitan area. The implications of this shift can depend largely on a region’s land-use policies as well as the quality and reach of its transit system.
“Particularly for low-income residents, if jobs move further out, if there isn’t reliable transit and they don’t have a car, that could limit their opportunities,” Kneebone said.
She said that policymakers in the Washington region have been proactive about trying to foster transit-oriented development.
The District, for example, has piloted a Live Near Your Work program that provides a matching grant for residents who purchase a home near their place of employment or near transit. The program is meant to help shorten commutes, reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality.
Tysons Corner, a major employment hub in this area, is poised to become better connected to transit with the arrival of Metro’s Silver Line.