This just in from the Stroud office

The Brookings Institution recently released a study of the continuing shift of jobs away from cities and toward the suburbs. According to Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment, only 21 percent of Americans who live in metropolitan areas work within three miles of a downtown area. All but three of the 98 areas studied have seen jobs move further away from the city center from 1998 to 2006. Nearly every industry is involved in this outward shift.

Only 21 percent of employees in the largest 98 metro areas work within three miles of downtown, while over twice that share (45 percent) work more than 10 miles away from the city center.

Oklahoma’s major metropolitan areas are joining in this trend. Our jobs are not as spread out as most metro areas, but lately they have been spreading faster.¬†Just under a quarter of Oklahoma City (23.9 percent) and Tulsa (23.1 percent) jobs are 10 or more miles from the city center, compared to the national average of 45 percent. From 1998-2006, Oklahoma City share of jobs in this “outer ring” has grown by 4.6 percentage points; in Tulsa it grew by 3.8 percentage points. Both are considerably higher than the national average growth of 2.6 percent.

Why should we care? The continuing outward movement of jobs has some substantial policy implications:

  1. It’s costly. It costs 20 to 40 percent more to provide water and sewer infrastructure to less dense areas than to more compact areas. People spend more time and money commuting to outlying jobs than centrally located ones.
  2. It reduces job opportunities, particularly for low-income working people. They tend to live in inner cities or older suburbs, while job growth is in newer and wealthier suburbs. Since the office park developments where jobs are growing don’t lend themselves to public transportation or even car-pooling, job sprawl leads to greater inequality and higher unemployment for low-income Americans.
  3. It can squelch innovation. Studies show that more densely spaced jobs and employers lead to more interaction among businesses and employees and increased patenting. This can be seen locally in the significant medical advances and inventions resulting from Oklahoma City’s medical park development. This public-private partnership created a major new employment center just a few blocks from downtown.
  4. It’s wasteful. Researchers have found that the “carbon footprint” of metropolitan areas can be related to the density and concentration of development, with lower-density regions consuming higher amounts of carbon per capita…shifting 60 to 90 percent of new growth to more compact forms of development would reduce VMT by 30 percent and decrease carbon dioxide emissions from transportation by 7 to 10 percent over the next 40 years.

Should we take policy action to reduce or reverse job sprawl? The Brookings study cautions that outward movement is a long term trend that is likely to pick up again as the economy recovers. They suggest, though, that coherent policies can slow down the spread of jobs and the resulting costs and inequities. Oklahoma typically has tolerated and even encouraged suburban sprawl and it would require major shifts in thinking to switch directions. Still, we could save ourselves some time and money and improve economic opportunities by considering:

  • Putting the brakes on widening freeways to the suburbs after the current round. If we shift these resources to road maintenance and public transit we’ll save money, time, and axles!
  • Pursuing public transit, including commuter rail in the metro areas. Transit stations help concentrate jobs and shopping and make it easy and economical for everybody to access them.
  • Stopping spreading state offices and agencies to the suburbs. This just increases driving time and cuts off some of our neediest workers from accessing jobs with good pay and benefits.
  • Expanding the use of creative public financing to build central city employment opportunities. The new Devon complex in Oklahoma City should be the next step, not the last.

Cities have been expanding since they were first created and won’t stop anytime soon. Perhaps, though, the time has come to put more effort into making them better, not just bigger.


Paul Shinn

Paul Shinn served as Budget and Tax Senior Policy Analyst with OK Policy from May 2019 until December 2021. Before joining OK Policy, Shinn held budget and finance positions for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, the Department of Human Services, the cities of Oklahoma City and Del City and several local governments in his native Oregon. He also taught political science and public administration at the University of Oklahoma, University of Central Oklahoma, and California State University Stanislaus. While with the Government Finance Officers Association, Paul worked on consulting and research projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and several state agencies and local governments. He also served as policy analyst for CAP Tulsa. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Oklahoma and degrees from the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland College Park. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Carmelita.

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