The Strain of Job Sprawl on Two-Income Households

When Mark Lampert was a kid, his mom stayed home with him and his brothers. His dad was out the door by 4:30 every morning, driving to the commuter lot in their distant Houston suburb to take the bus in to the city for work. He had friends whose parents both worked, and when those friends came home from school they had the house to themselves – “which is why we went over there to build pipe bombs,” Mark said. At Mark’s house, dinner was ready and everyone was home by 6:00 every night.

Young people don't want to work in corporate campuses like this. And with more and more two-income households, it's just not practical. Photo: ##http://www.indianacountyceo.com/Site-Selection-Services-Multi-Tenant-Buildings.aspx##Indiana County##

These days, Mark is living very differently. He lives in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, April. She works long days as a journalist, biking or riding the metro a short 10 to 15 minutes to her downtown office. His dream job as a video game sound designer has him commuting far beyond the reaches of the metro red line, over an hour each way. They often don’t manage to sit down to dinner until 9:00.

He normally takes the train, but things get complicated during his months-long crunch times at work, when he’s up against a video game release deadline. The Ride-On bus he takes from the metro doesn’t run late, so he has to drive during those times — and lengthen an already painfully long day, circling around endlessly when he gets home to find a parking spot. It gets even hairier when they think about having a family, which they’d like to do soon. It’s hard to imagine a child care situation where they could equitably split drop-offs and pick-ups.

April and Mark used to live out in the suburbs, closer to his work, but they ached to get back into the city. “We knew it would be a lot harder for him time-wise,” April said, “but there’s so much vibrancy about living in the city.”

Their situation is shaped by three coinciding trends: the rise of the dual-income household, the increased desire for urban living, and the spread of job sprawl.

In the 1950s, 57 percent of residents and 70 percent of jobs were located in central cities; in 1990, they were about 37 and 45.

When Mark’s parents were graduating from high school, 35 percent of married women worked outside the home. By the time Mark graduated from high school in the late 1990s, it was 61 percent, which is about where it is now. That means that rather than locating a household to be convenient to one person’s job, families are now struggling to find the sweet spot where two people will have a reasonable commute to two different workplaces.

Sometimes they choose to live between the two. Anecdotally, I see more people making the choice April and Mark made: living where one can have an easy, car-free commute, and the other has a much longer haul. The lack of parking in their inner-city neighborhood is no problem for her, but it causes him no end of headaches.

Couples like April and Mark have a harder time finding that sweet spot because of job sprawl, or the decentralization of employment outside of central cities. According to a study published in 1993 in the Journal of Economic Perspectives [PDF], people – and employers — have been shying away from central cities for decades:

In the 1950s, 57 percent of MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area] residents and 70 percent of MSA jobs were located in central cities; in 1960, the percentages were 49 and 63; in 1970, they were 43 and 55; in 1980 they were 40 and 50; in 1990, they were about 37 and 45.

Elizabeth Kneebone at the Brookings Institution updated these findings in 2009 [PDF] (another update will be coming out this fall). She found that the trend of job sprawl has continued, and that it affects almost every major industry.

Employment steadily decentralized between 1998 and 2006. Ninety-five 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.

Job sprawl has spread at the same time that dual-income households are on the rise. While more research is needed to gauge the effects on working couples and families, it stands to reason that dispersed employment makes it harder for two people to both land jobs with a sane commute, and to figure out where to set up a household.

The growing decentralization of employment also lags behind the increasingly strong demand for city living. The housing market is beginning to correct itself after the distortions of past decades, when developers over-built in the suburbs. Growth is stalled in outer suburbs and lighting up in central cities and walkable suburbs. Housing values in walkable places weren’t hit as hard and are rebounding faster than the McMansion neighborhoods that became “toxic” foreclosure zones.

This is another reason why now is a terrible time for employers to be locating on suburban corporate campuses, accessible only by eight-lane arterial roads, with no where but the company cafeteria to eat lunch. Their applicant pool wants to live in the city, and they want a short commute on transit.

Employers need to catch on to these realities – fast. Not only will relocating to cities align with women’s equal participation in the workforce and the growing preference for urban living, it helps their bottom line, bringing them closer to where the talent is.

  • I agree with everything here both observationally and analytically, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for companies to “catch on to these realities”. For employers to optimize their siting and work environments to better meld with the life situations of their employees, they first need to undergo a more fundamental change in aiming to make any sort of decisions with employee considerations at all. Yes, some companies are considerate of employee well-being, but the efforts of even the best large-size corporations could be described as mediocre – and at the other end of the spectrum, companies’ employee considerations are downright pathetic or hostile or both. I think the prevailing attitude is, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to work here!” How depressing.

  • Such problems will only continue to create a gap between the best workers and the marginalized workers. The most qualified workers will have the choice to leave the distant jobs for those that are centralized. 

  • Dunno. Situations like the Bay Area where you have dense housing with reasonable transit to big office parks might be the way. Real estate in the dense walkable areas is too expensive to use for cubicles – better to use it for housing. Of course the real answer for non-manufacturing jobs, is telecommuting.

  • Anonymous

    Having to find a place to live near two jobs is definitely harder than one job.  Then add to that the fact that people don’t work at a single company their whole career like my dad did.
    I know a lot of people that found a home optimized for their 2-job household only to have their workplace close down or get laid off.

    So they find a new job, but it’s a long commute away.  They don’t move because their kids are established in a school and they have a neighborhood they like, so they put up with the long commute.  It’s just not as easy as it was the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Larry Littlefield

    To be fair, the U.S. population has approximately doubled since 1950, and with more adults as a share of the population and a higher share of adults working, the number of workers more than doubled.

    So even if central cities did not decline, their share would have unless more were built.  

    In the case of New York City, for example, before people starting fleeing to the suburbs after, say, 1965 they were pushed there because there was no more room in the city.

    Suburban-type environments were built instead of more cities after WWII.  But that may be changing.

  • DO

    Reduce corporate taxes in the urban core, and companies will flock to relocate there.

  • Anonymous


    Real estate in the dense walkable areas is too expensive to use for cubicles – better to use it for housing.

    This doesn’t make sense to me– downtown is both dense and expensive, and it’s full of offices, not housing, for the most part.

    As far as I’m concerned, the solution lies in making better use of the infrastructure we have– upzoning areas around existing train stations, replacing parking lots and even garages, wherever it makes fiscal sense. The upside of this is that, properly done, it should not cost anything– it should be profitable for transit agencies from rents, and increased passenger numbers.

    Over time, jobs will follow people. If “Mark” from the article has a difficult time getting to his job, that’s an “anti-benefit”, and it means that his job will have to pay him more, or offer other benefits, to compensate. Maybe in this economy people will take what they can get, but in the long run this effect will mean that companies located in inaccessible places will have to offer more to recruit and keep talented workers, which will make them less competitive.

  • 77027

    Employers “needing” to catch on to something seems like a false positive in this experiment. Mark’s situation contradicts that conclusion directly. It seems, rather, that Mark “needs” to adjust something, given that his dream job has less flexibility in location and incentive to relocate.

  • As Apple builds a spaceship in the middle of the asphalt wilderness . . . 

  • Anonymous

    The easiest thing to use transit for is your daily commute: it’s predictable and doesn’t involve hauling piles of crap. So although I wholeheartedly agree that time is the biggest cost of sprawl, I wonder if focusing density on housing still makes the most sense. 

  • Anonymous

    Relocating to the urban core won’t help their bottom line.  It will hurt it.  The bottom line is the reason they locate where they do.  The main reason that companies locate in suburban office parks instead of downtown business districts is cost- rents are over double in downtown DC than what they are off I-95, or I-270 or the Dulles tollroad.  Even the new office areas by the ballpark and in NOMA are considerably more expensive than the burbs.  The only organizations that have revenues/margins high enough to afford those rents are high-end professional services- law firms, accounting firms, lobbying shops-, national non-profits, and federal government agencies.

    Why are the rents so high?  1) simple land scarcity, 2) zoning and other laws that prevent development many underused lots and building of tall buildings in DC, 3) insanely high commercial property taxes.  If business are going to relocate into DC, DC will have to start working on numbers 2 and 3.  Number 1 is just reality. 

  • Between the changing preferences of younger Americans and inevitably
    rising fuel prices, we’re going to see a lot more people using transit
    living in denser, more urban areas in the next few decades. Now that
    doesn’t necessarily mean everyone flocking to downtown. For some, yes.
    But I think we’re going to see new kinds of suburbs emerge more and
    more.

    Densifying suburban office clusters into employment and living centers is a viable way to go since downtown isn’t an option for everyone. I think Tysons Corner outside of DC is a good example of this. They’re densifying the area and will open the Silver Line there next year. That model of developing a few good dense clusters would strike a balance between the completely dispersed office parks and everyone in high rises downtown. It also allows for efficient mass transit.

    Again, not every one and every employer will flock downtown or even to one of these centers. But given all that’s going on, you’re going to see more and more of it in the coming decades and that will become “the new normal”. Employers will naturally follow that path, eventually.

  • Anonymous

    If you concentrate jobs in a high-density core, you end up with Manhattan. By Manhattan, here, I mean a place that has a lob of jobs concentrated in a very limited area, immediately surrounded by very expensive housing per unit area. Then, you end with the Manhattan paradoxes: to live reasonably close to the job centers you are either on upper-middle class or above; or poor to put up with the ghetto/housing projects; or willing to for more from your income for housing than in any other area in the country.

    If you don’t fill those categories, your commute will likely be longer than in “sprawling” cities.

    Looking from the land supply side (unless you enact massive bureaucracies to micro-manage to death a city, and even so only to up to a point), CDBs and high-rises have very expensive space costs per area.

    Prestige law firms, banks, corporate HQs and the likes can afford such costs, they are not relevant to the bottom line. But once you move beyond that category, high floor space costs starts hurting badly other business.

    For this reason I think it is better to create secondary CDBs along commuter rail lines that can allow for reverse commuting (the equivalent of locating them near major Interstate interchanges).

    Of course, in New York wages are higher than the national average, and the difference on additional NYC wages from the rest of the country is far lower than the difference in housing costs if you crop out the top and bottom 5% earners… But Michael Bloomberg suggested middle-class childless couples should consider 300 sq. ft. apartments as viable options 🙁

    Now imagine if all metropolitan areas followed the Manhattan model… to begin with, the major advantage of cities like Phoenix or Denver (a comfy live in a comfy house even if you don’t earn 300K/year) would disappear. And so would disappear the convenience of dirt-cheap office space in the hundreds of office parks out there (even excluding parking for the sake of argument). 

    As for companies locating decisions, we must consider how scarce or important each of their major worker cohorts are. Low-skilled jobs usually comprise workers easy to fire and replace, and they are usually poorer so willing to travel longer to earn low wages. Very top corporate jobs will have people (or even couples) do anything to get them no matter where they are. I think it is the upper echelon of college-level professionals that is most sensitive to location: they are not working for 7-digit salaries that they will do whatever necessary to get to those jobs, nor are they destitute households hovering around the poverty line to spend 2h3- one-way in a bus for 20K/year either.

    These professionals are probably part of the group of households where expense per children is the highest, where their own housing decisions is most tied to education (the poor ones can’t afford moving to better districts) and to whom upper-middle class family services availability is the most important.

  • TN

    We can speculate a lot about the land economics of large employers locating their operations in the suburbs. And we can wonder how it affects their employees.

    But having observed the relocation of several large HQ operations out of downtowns in the SF Bay Area over the years, I  noticed that these companies tended to move to areas of the suburbs where their top executives already lived. These companies might tout the line that they were “moving to be more accessible to the bulk of their employees” but for some reason I think that they meant that they moved to be closer to the executives’ homes.

    Since I only know of a handful of examples, my conclusions are just speculation. But it is worthy of some thought.

  • Ian Turner

    @andrelot:disqus : It’s a common argument to point out that dense spaces tend to be more expensive, and then say we shouldn’t do that because it’s so expensive. But couldn’t it be the other way around? After all, there has to be a reason companies and individuals are willing to pay the higher rents in dense environments. Maybe they’re expensive simply because they are more desirable.

    If that’s true, then the solution is to create more such spaces — not less — so as to satisfy this unmet demand. That means eliminating parking and building height requirements so that we can make the most of the land we have.

  • Ian Turner

    @4aea702b6e9b764973427eb7d17e95e2:disqus : Your comment reminds me of this: http://www.inc.com/magazine/20080601/how-hard-could-it-be-adventures-in-office-space.html?partner=fogcreek

    “This spring, according to TenantWise, the average asking price for Class
    A office space was about $95 per square foot in midtown but only about
    $52 per square foot downtown. I assume that’s because the average Class A
    CEO lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, and for them the idea of taking
    the subway from Grand Central every day is just too horrible for words.”

  • Anonymous

    For Silicon Valley high-tech companies (e.g. Facebook) the move from small downtowns to more suburban campuses was driven by company growth. You’ll still see a large number of startups in downtown Palo Alto and Mtn View. But you’re right, companies choose locations to attract and retain top executives more than the workers.

  • Anonymous

    tinyurl.com/cyk9xz2

  • Yes, employers need to catch on to realities and re-act accordingly.
    The best fact is some issues will only continue to create a gap between the superlative
    workers and the marginalized workers. For employers to optimize their sitting
    and work environments to be enhanced they have to be heal with the life
    situations of their employees, therefore they first need to undergo many elementary
    change in aiming to make any sort of decisions with employee consideration.

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