Are you one of the millions of Americans opting into "job sprawl" over a short commute?
Over a recent break from school, Harvard sociology Ph.D. candidate Robert Manduca whipped up a fascinating visualization of the geography of American jobs, powered by data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics.
At first glance, this might look like a map of U.S. population density. But there’s more than meets the eye.
Before you dig in to “Where are the Jobs?: Employment in America 2010,” it may help to note that each dot represents a single job—and you can tell what kind of job it is because of its color. Manufacturing and trade jobs are red; professional services jobs are blue; healthcare, education, and government jobs are green; and retail, hospitality, and other service jobs are yellow. You won’t find any dots for federal jobs (no available data), and Massachusetts is missing entirely—the only state to opt out of reporting its employment trends. The end result is a highly detailed map that gives viewers a quick summary of how many and what types of jobs are a part of the economy.
“I was surprised by the extent to which jobs are spatially concentrated,” Manduca says. “Even with the growth of suburban employment over the last 50-plus years, downtowns are still major job centers in most cities. And suburban jobs are clustered too—they are often located next to highways or transportation corridors, or else in groups of office parks. The counterpoint to this is the extent to which large parts of major cities—even parts that are very densely populated—have relatively few jobs.”
The difference in job density between Hudson County, New Jersey (to the left) and Manhattan, New York (to the right) is staggering.
Though it may seem like a lot about our economy has changed since the last Census, subsequent surveys and reports suggest that Manduca’s findings remain relevant five years later. The distance between people and the jobs they hold is growing all the time. Nearly 600,000 workers in America are “mega-commuters,” traveling 90 minutes and over 50 miles to work—each way. Though that’s by definition an extreme sampling, 10.8 million U.S. workers don’t fare much better, traveling an hour to their jobs twice a day, according to a 2013 report from the Census Bureau. (Average commute times are about 26 minutes each way.)
By nearly every measure, long commutes make us sadder and less optimistic—even 40 percent more prone to divorce. By contrast, shorter commutes make us happier than earning an extra $40,000 a year. Long commutes are also terribly unhealthy. After just 10 miles spent commuting each way, our blood sugar, cholesterol, and risk for depression go up. Our blood pressure rises as our length of time commuting goes up. Workers who commute over 45 minutes report lower sleep quality and more exhaustion. And rush hour commutes are particularly bad, leading to dangerous spikes in blood pressure.
Yet plenty of us are willingly opting in to job sprawl. This spring, Brookings released a study about the growing distance between people and jobs in metropolitan America:
“Suburban residents saw the number of jobs within a typical commute distance drop by 7 percent, more than twice the decline experienced by the typical city resident (3 percent)… As poor and minority residents shifted toward suburbs in the 2000s, their proximity to jobs fell more than for non-poor and white residents… Residents of high-poverty and majority-minority neighborhoods experienced particularly pronounced declines in job proximity.”
One of the most striking examples of this occurs when comparing Manhattan and Hudson County, New Jersey, just across the river. Both are extremely densely populated areas—two of the densest in the country. But it’s expensive to live in a place like Manhattan, which “has a huge number of jobs, whereas Hudson County has very few relative to the number of people,” says Manduca. Commuters making the trek to Manhattan experience the longest commute times in the nation.
Despite hype to the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that in every major city in the world, “suburbs are expanding relative to urban cores.” Moving outside the city is especially attractive to low-wage workers, even though suburban sprawl and its accompanying lack of proximity to jobs hurts the poor the most.
Detroit clearly shows a concentration of employment in the downtown area of the city, but dots of any color are few and far between in others.
To see this in action, zoom in on Detroit—which made the news early this year when one of its residents walked 21 miles to and from work every single day because the bus schedule wasn’t reliable, and after his car broke down, he couldn’t afford to replace it. And, of course, because the manufacturing work he does was tough to find closer to home. Detroit clearly shows a concentration of employment in the downtown area of the city, but dots of any color are few and far between in others (though, if you zoom in incredibly closely, you might be able to make out hints of the city’s growing hotbed of new “creative” residents from all over the country).
In contrast, nearby Ann Arbor—a quintessentially college town with cultural institutions, trendy bars, and hipsters in spades—is a vivid rainbow mix of dots, thanks in no small part to the presence of the University of Michigan. Business owners flock to Ann Arbor to cater to the needs and wants of U of M’s faculty, the 43,000 students, and the university itself.
Ann Arbor—a quintessentially college town with cultural institutions, trendy bars, and hipsters in spades—is a vivid rainbow mix of dots.
For Michigan in particular, but also the country as a whole, it’s tempting to blame a decrease in manufacturing jobs. But according to the map, manufacturing is still a very significant part of the U.S. economy. The Economic Policy Institute notes that the manufacturing sector employed 12 million workers in 2013, 8.8 percent of total U.S. employment. It’s just that the manufacturing jobs are shifting in location, along with the types of products being produced.
Such trends are endlessly compelling, and Manduca has ambitious goals to make his map even more interesting. “Zoning decisions, transportation planning, economic development projects, and other policy choices need to be well tailored to the economic situation on the ground. With many of these decisions, and with urban policy more generally, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The policies that work in New York aren't necessarily going to work in Texas, and what makes sense in Chicago won't necessarily be right for South Dakota. I hope that this map will help citizens and their representatives better understand their regional economies by giving them a bird's eye view,” he says.
Though the map doesn’t provide solutions to city problems, it does tend to inspire one to ask questions, and such questions could lead to policy changes that significantly impact how cities operate. If civic and business leaders do not see the type of employment diversity or just employment period that they would like to have, then the question becomes, How do cities attract the types of employment opportunities they desire—and is the current population capable of taking advantage of said opportunities? Economic stability, environmental sustainability, labor laws, and other issues are all important aspects of assessing employment options and determining what is best for any given community.
“I'd love to add a temporal component to the project to see how the distribution of employment has changed over time,” Manduca adds.