An Open Data Quick Dive: Placing Metro Detroit’s Job Sprawl in a National Context

Open Data Quick Dives are a new feature from the Data Driven Detroit Staff Blog. Each post is focused on demonstrating the analytical potential of free, open datasets. The posts can be about anything an author is interested in, and range from simple to complex analysis. There’s only one catch: the writer has to finish a draft of the post on the same day they start it, including research, mapping, and data gathering! Our hope is that these short analyses trigger plenty of interesting ideas while exposing our readers to some of the best online tools and datasets available today!

Over the past several years, a number of writers and organizations have focused on the topic of “job sprawl”in Southeast Michigan (six counties that collectively comprise the Detroitmetropolitan statistical area). Analyses have demonstrated that, compared to other regions, jobs in Detroit are spread across a much wider area, and far fewer jobs in Metro Detroit are located in the central city than in other regions across the country. In this post, we’ll add our own voice to the conversation, placing job sprawl in Metro Detroit into three broad contexts – rapid transit, older industrial cities, and rapidly-developing regions. We’ve chosen to look through these three frames of reference because they’re mentioned quite often in conversations surrounding both job sprawl and urban sprawl in general.

We’ll use the proportion of jobs in the region that are located within that region’s central city, or “job centralization”, to broadly represent job sprawl. All information that we’re using comes from an open source of data – the U.S. Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool, which visualizes employment data from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Program (LEHD). Numbers represent total primary jobs (the highest-earning job for each individual worker) as of 2013. Finally, before we begin it’s important to note that while we may extrapolate as to potential causes for some of our observations, a deeper analysis would be required in order to draw any firm conclusions about these causes.

First, we’ll look through the lens of rapid transit, comparing the level of centralization in Metro Detroit with the ten cities across America that contain the busiest rapid transit and light rail systems in terms of ridership (Table 1). Of the 11 cities in Table 1, Metro Detroit has the lowest percentage of jobs in the central city by a considerable margin (13.7%), with metropolitan Atlanta (the next-lowest) over four percentage points higher. All other metropolitan regions on this list have job centralization rates above 20% and seven rates are more than double that of Metro Detroit. Even the two regions with job totals smaller than Metro Detroit, Portland and San Diego, have more jobs in the core city than Detroit – 26 percentage points in the case of Portland and nearly 44 percentage points in the case of San Diego. Both are newer regions located in the western portion of the country, and as we’ll see shortly, geography and age of development do seem to play a role in a region’s overall level of job centralization.

Job Sprawl
Next, we’ll turn to older industrial cities, with a specific focus on regions that are often mentioned in the same context as Detroit – Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Baltimore. As shown in Table 2, even among this group of relative peers, job centralization in the Metro Detroit region is still noticeably lower. St. Louis is the only one of the four regions with a job centralization level below 20%. Interestingly, it is also the only one of these cities that does not exceed Detroit in the total number of jobs, even though employment in each of these other regions is considerably less than in Metro Detroit. Cleveland’s metropolitan region only has about 55% as many jobs as Metro Detroit, but the city of Cleveland contains nearly 30,000 more jobs than the city of Detroit. It is also interesting to note that there seems to be much less overall variation in job centralization between older industrial cities than there is in the cities listed in our first comparison. This is perhaps because most of the cities in this comparison are located in the same portion of the country, and many of them experienced similar patterns of development during the manufacturing booms of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Job Sprawl
Finally, we’ll turn to comparing job concentration in Metro Detroit with rapidly growing regions across the country, many of which are located in the Southeast and Southwest. Much of the recent work published about these areas suggests that their urban growth patterns tend to promote sprawl and lower density development. Therefore, as with older industrial cities, it would seem apparent that this category should also be more comparable with Metro Detroit, demonstrating low center-city job concentration rates compared to the region as a whole. However, as the Table 3 shows, many of these central cities (in particular Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Houston, and San Antonio) actually dominate their surrounding regions to a much greater degree. Half of the cities on this list contain over 50% of the jobs in their metropolitan region. Riverside-San Bernardino actually has a lower job concentration measure than Metro Detroit, but that is likely because this region is adjacent to the broader Los Angeles MSA, and many workers likely work in the Los Angeles region instead. Indeed, since many of these cities tend to be newer, it is important to note that other factors, such as different municipal annexation laws, may lie behind this observation.

Job Sprawl
So why does it matter that the degree of Detroit’s job centralization is unusually low among older industrial cities and is even more stark when compared with cities that contain well-established rapid transit systems and regions that are rapidly growing? With a poverty rate of over 35% as of 2014, the city of Detroit contains one of the poorest populations in the country. Coupled with a public transit system that doesn’t reach many regional job centers, the low number of jobs in the central city presents a considerable barrier for reducing concentrated poverty in the Detroit region. In addition, the fact that so much of the region’s economic base is located outside of the central city provides greater challenges for Detroit in attracting and retaining both business investment and the additional tax revenues that accompany it.

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Interested in learning more about job concentrations in your community? Please look into the “OnTheMap” tool, where you can look at job totals for regions, cities, neighborhoods or other boundaries!