Sunday, September 10, 2006

Housing near jobs: theory vs. reality

One of the common planning mantras you'll hear is getting people to live closer to where they work in order to reduce congestion, commutes, and energy use. It's called "jobs-housing balance", and this article from Seattle based on recently released Census data talks about why it doesn't seem to work.

Only about 40 percent of the workers who live in Redmond — a city where jobs greatly outnumber residents — also work there, according to the Census Bureau. For Tukwila, another regional job magnet, that figure is even smaller: just 17 percent.

About three-quarters of the residents of Issaquah, Renton and Kent who work, earn their living in another town.

In the 1980s, a concept called "jobs-housing balance" arose in urban-planning circles.

If government policies promoted building new houses, condos and apartments close to offices, stores and factories, the thinking went, people would commute shorter distances and be more likely to walk, bike or take the bus to work.

Traffic and air quality would improve. Energy consumption would plummet.

The census estimates for places like Redmond and Issaquah suggest "there are limits to that notion, and they should be recognized," says Dan Carlson, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs who studies transportation and land use.

People versus planners

In other words: People don't necessarily do what planners think they will.


The census estimates indicate Enumclaw may have the best jobs-housing balance in the region. About 4,700 people work inside the city limits. About 4,800 workers live there.

For the most part, however, they're not the same people.

More than 70 percent of Enumclaw's working residents commute to out-of-town jobs. And more than 70 percent of the people who work in Enumclaw live somewhere else.


Their decisions reflect regional and national trends: more two-income households, more frequent job changes.

They also reflect personal preferences that are stronger than any aversion to longer commutes.

The article also talks about issues of housing affordability, quality of the schools, and people not wanting to uproot their family to take a new job. There are a lot of factors that go into peoples' choice of where they live, and closeness to work is only one relatively small factor in the decision. The general pattern seems to be that people buy the best value house they can in the best school district possible within about a half-hour commute of the job(s) in the household, and that tends to be closer to the far end of that commute range in most metros. That's not to say that offering more residential options near job centers is a bad thing (and improving urban school districts would certainly be a very good thing), but the impact is likely to be marginal at best.


At 5:30 PM, September 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we had discussions with developers at the Center for Houston’s Futures, one told us that distance to work is the fifth most important criterion for choosing housing location.

I think that the others were –

1) Quality of schools (for families with children)
2) Security, lack of crime
3) Affordability
4) Amenities, lifestyle opportunities

Given that, I’m not surprised by the study. But the cost of gasoline, if it goes higher, will adjust that somewhat, but it certainly won’t put it at the top of the list unless it were really outrageous. Even then, probably only up to #4…

At 11:55 PM, September 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother works in Redmond, WA and lives across Lake Washington in Seattle. Many of the younger workforce at Microsoft and supporting businesses actually choose to live in Seattle for the lifestyle and the proximity to entertainment in downtown Seattle. Redmond is a suburban area with a real lack of entertainment or public spaces. The biggest complaint I have heard is the lack of realistic public transport alternatives for commuters in and out of Seattle to the Eastside (Redmond, Bellevue, etc). Basically all you have is the bus, which gets stuck in the same traffic coming across the bridges from Seattle.

So, entertainment and proximity to public space is a huge draw for some people (I would add myself in that group).


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