The Injustice of Subsidizing Jobs People Can Only Reach By Driving

Eaton Corporation used Port Authority funds to relocate its headquarters from downtown Cleveland to the nexus of several highways in the east side suburbs.
Eaton Corporation used Port Authority funds to relocate its headquarters from downtown Cleveland to the nexus of several highways in the east side suburbs. Photo: Eaton Corporation

The more far-flung the jobs in a region, the fewer are accessible via transit, biking, and walking — or even a short, inexpensive car commute. And yet, in many states, economic development policies still contribute to long, burdensome commutes, especially for people who can’t afford cars.

The sprawling, racially segregated Cleveland region is a bit of a poster child for job sprawl. The typical commute distance continues to increase, according to a 2015 Brookings study, and public agencies are subsidizing this dispersal of jobs in several ways.

Marc Lefkowitz at the Cleveland-based environment blog Green City Blue Lake has been examining how economic development spending undermines transit access to major job centers in Northeast Ohio. He used WalkScore to show how the Cuyahoga County Port Authority is contributing to this problem in the Cleveland area. The Port Authority subsidizes loans to selected businesses, and these loans often pay for relocations, office parks, or parking structures, Lefkowitz reports:

While the port has supported many projects that reinvest in the urban core and create walkable, transit-friendly places that improve job access, about half of recent projects have the effect of reducing access to economic opportunity.

It’s vital for all economic development programs to take these issues into account. Too often, such programs are “spatially agnostic.” They don’t care where the new jobs appear, as long as they are in a particular political jurisdiction. But the particular location matters a lot. Public investment should not promote job sprawl that moves opportunities away from the people who need opportunity the most.

A secondary trend that emerges from the analysis of the port’s investment is the direct investment in parking. Structured and surface parking was added in nearly all cases. In seven deals, the creation of structured parking was either a significant or sole purpose. Of particular concern is the supply of parking attached to developments in transit-rich areas of the region.

It’s a shame these economic development agencies are so unconcerned by their own contributions to the problem of poor job access.

More recommended reading today: Urban Indy considers the case of the Chatham Arch neighborhood, just a mile from downtown Indianapolis, where residents apparently think townhomes represent too much density. And Bike Portland looks at how the city’s new bike-share system, Biketown, fared during the recent “snowmaggedon.”

  • Vooch

    great insight

  • Anne A

    Job creation should NOT be subsidized unless it’s in locations that are transit-friendly and/or bike friendly.

  • david vartanoff

    This is not an unintended consequence of sprawl, it is part of the larger secession from the central cities both culturally and economically. If you make the job site inaccessible to transit dependent urban dwellers, you don’t have to even interview them.

  • HamTech87

    Great piece. Sometimes those behind these sprawl project point to a very low-frequency and low-span bus route or even a trail for bicyclists, and say ‘look how green and accessible our project is!’
    Of course, nobody wants to leave a meeting to catch the only bus home, and that trail is not illuminated nor plowed in winter.

  • James

    Yes. What’s our strategy to fight this? I can tell you “Complete Streets” or “Safe Routes to School” or “Vision Zero” (or whatever the buzzword du jour is) ain’t going to cut it.

  • Great piece. They could designate Transit Oriented Areas and give incentives only there . The other benefit would be to create density and a sense of place .

  • Alicia

    Why not?
    Complete streets – all major streets should be accessible in different ways, including accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists.
    Safe Routes to school – this one is self-explanatory
    Vision Zero – implementing policies to bring deaths in traffic to zero (or as close as possible)

    Consistent implementation of those ideals would be a strategy to fight this.

  • Alicia

    See for example, the referendum on regional public transportation in Metro Detroit back in November. Look up coverage of the referendum in the Macomb News or the Oakland press and read some of the public discussion on it.

  • http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/ opposes anti-progressive subsidies. I wonder if this type is on their agenda?

  • It must be that the routing of the 15, 41F, and the 94 buses are all new since January 17th, with two of the 3 routes tying into either the Shaker or Van Aken rapid lines. There used to be a bus that went to the community college right across Harvard years ago too as I recall.

    As a regional sustainability planner I don’t feel that the constant friction between cities and their suburbs is terribly healthy. Frankly Eaton chose to keep its jobs in the Cleveland metropolitan area rather than moving them offshore as plenty of other US companies have done recently.

    Can a central city the size of Cleveland or Detroit be sustainable if its suburbs are not? Cleveland really didn’t lose a tremendous amount as Eaton’s Class A office space downtown should be easily rented, and the Cleveland area didn’t lose any employment either.

    How sustainable is Quicken’s move to downtown Detroit when most of its employees live in distant suburbs and are forced to commute back and forth to the city generally by car, as Detroit’s public transit service offers a good deal less service than RTA does?

    In the battle to keep the Cleveland area from losing any more jobs an residents a major corporate move locally within the urban area is a pretty good outcome, and I am sure that plenty of Eaton’s employees will still come downtown to attend various events and spend their money too.

    You just wait 20 or 30 years and all the big older cities of the Great Lakes region will be hot properties after ongoing climate change, temperature rise, rising sea-levels and the impending compromise of water supply and food supply across the Southwestern US, Mexico, low-lying coastal areas, as well as most of the islands of the Caribbean force a considerable number of refugees in-search of a viable fresh water supply.

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