It’s still something of a cliché to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed America, especially via the large increase in remote work. Several recent reports provide facts and figures on these ongoing changes, and transportation planners and funders in state legislatures, Congress, and elsewhere need to increasingly take the transportation implications into account.
Let’s start with a study by Adam Ozimek of Upwork, released in March. The new survey of 23,000 respondents found that remote work is still a significant factor in people’s decisions about where to live and work. It found that 2.4% of those surveyed have moved because of remote work since 2020. And 9.3% said they are “planning on moving because of remote work,” compared with only 6.1% saying that in Upwork’s first survey during the pandemic, in Oct. 2020. Significantly, 28% of those who say they are planning to move would be four hours away from where they live now, and another 13% said they will move two-to-four hours away from where they live now.
These potential moves reflect the ideas of hybrid and remote work embraced by many employers, with employees splitting their time between home and workplace. This leads to a kind of “donut effect” in which the catchment area for an employer spreads widely. For example, using a housing prices map centered on New York City, the donut may include the Poconos, Allentown (PA), and southern New Jersey—places far beyond the metro area (and outside the territory of its metropolitan planning organizations MPOs).
A detailed article, “Internal Migration: Movers and Shakers,” in The Economist also discussed these trends and the potential impacts on the economies of major cities. It quoted Harvard economist Edward Glaeser cautioning city leaders about “the completely understandable urge for progressive action in cities running into the buzz-saw of heightened geographic mobility,” but warning that if they increase taxes on business and the rich “and fail to offer basic services like public safety, then something that was a modest economic disruption could turn into something much more severe.”
It also quoted Chapman University’s Joel Kotkin saying, “People go where they can achieve the American dream. It’s increasingly difficult to do that in the cities that created the American dream, like New York,” because of their high cost of living.
Demographer Wendell Cox has a new report out, reporting on census data on population changes for the 15 months ending July 1, 2021. While there was a record low amount of population increase, there was a “perhaps unprecedented rise in net domestic migration,” Cox writes, accelerated by the increase in remote work. Metro areas above one million people with the largest one-year population gains topped out with Austin at 3%, followed by Raleigh, Phoenix, and Jacksonville. Those with the largest population losses were San Francisco (-2.6%) followed by San Jose, New York, and Los Angeles.
Putting these pieces together, Kotkin has published a long article called “Exurbia Rising.” Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was already significant migration from older, high-cost-of-living cities to urban counties in states such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Those making such moves were “young people in prime family formation years.” The suburban and exurban counties experiencing the highest growth had 3.5 times as many children per household as in places like Manhattan and San Francisco. As one major home builder, Robert Schottenstein, CEO of M/I Homes, told Kotkin, “This is a flight to safety and security. The millennials are getting older, and they are transitioning as they start families.”
Some of the original exurbs have turned into suburbs, as population growth spreads outward. Kotkin cites places such as Irvine, CA, and The Woodlands near Houston as examples. More recently, such planned communities farther from major metro areas include Summerlin, NV, Tres Lagos, TX, and New Albany, OH. Contrary to the stereotype of lily-white suburbs, Irvine is 40% Asian, The Woodlands is 30% non-white, and Tres Lagos is 75% middle-class Hispanics. New Albany, over the past 20 years, has grown from 3,700 to 10,000 and has 15,000 employees in its business park—prior to the opening of Intel’s planned $20 billion chip manufacturing project.
The key to housing affordability, says Kotkin, is taking advantage of lower-cost land on the fringes of metro areas—the exurbs. And contrary to the notion that the need to create services like roads, water, and sewers makes housing there more costly than infill development, utility needs are largely being met by cost-effective municipal utility districts (MUDs), of which Texas has more than 900 and Colorado more than 1,800.
Current federal, and some state, transportation planning ignores these developments and trends. Rather than figuring out the transportation needs of increasingly decentralized urban/suburban/exurban metro areas, many transportation planners and the U.S. Department of Transportation continue to focus a lot of efforts on getting Americans out of their cars and into high-density housing that can be served by transit. The metro areas where transit works relatively well are those that still have large job centers downtown—mostly legacy transit cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. But planners’ focus on density and transit ignores the suburbanization and exurbanization that has been accelerated by the pandemic and the rise of remote work.
Kotkin suggests that a major change is long overdue. Congress and many MPOs that continue to expand funding for rail transit projects and attempt to restrict housing developments at the urban fringe ignore this country’s rapidly changing geography. He notes that a study of 23 completed rail transit systems found that in those locales, “the percentage of commuters driving alone has increased…and even in the largest metropolitan areas, the average transit commute takes about 75 percent longer than the average auto commute.”
Moreover, as access studies from the University of Minnesota have documented, in metro areas with more than one million people, “cars can reach almost 55 times as many potential jobs as transit in less than 30 minutes,” Kotkin writes.
We need transportation policies that match our evolving urban/suburban/exurban geography. Rail transit and forced densification are not the answer.
Originally published by Reason Foundation. Republished with permission.