Thursday, April 01, 2010

Population, Jobs and Commutes in the Washington Region, Part One

The story of growth is an old one. Cities create jobs and attract residents, who eventually empty out into the suburbs. Those residents then drive back into the cities for work, loading roads with in-out traffic flows. As inner suburbs mature, produce their own jobs and become more dense, growth spills to the outer suburbs to create sprawl. Soon the entire regional transportation network becomes jammed, necessitating expensive new road and transit projects, endless congestion or both. Such is the inevitable result of decades of population and employment growth.

This is the conventional wisdom. For the Washington area, this paradigm holds but only up to a point. Why? Because it’s incomplete.

In a major new research project, MPW looks back on the history of population and employment growth, wage increases and transportation commutes in the Washington region from 1970 on. We examine these phenomena in every jurisdiction in the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which includes the District of Columbia; Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland; Arlington, Clarke, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Warren Counties and Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Manassas and Manassas Park Cities in Virginia and Jefferson County in West Virginia.

The Washington MSA from Wikipedia.

We find that the patterns of growth have defined employment opportunities and commutes across the region, creating winners and losers. Some jurisdictions have seen significant growth driven primarily by jobs. Others have become teeming bedroom communities. Some have seen strong wage growth while others have not. Some have emerged as major players in the D.C. area while others are struggling to keep up. And the unevenness of growth, both in type and magnitude, has impacted the region’s transportation flows perhaps even more than the sheer volume of new residents and jobs.

All of the above illuminates very different challenges in coming years for each of the area’s major jurisdictions. There may even be grounds for a potential common agenda across the region to balance growth, reduce its impact on our transportation network and spread the benefits of expansion more evenly around the area. With their fragmented structure, this is a difficult challenge for the state and local governments in our region. But if they cannot take it on and the imbalances of the past forty years carry forth into the future, no amount of transportation spending will be enough to remedy the unimaginable congestion that will follow.

We’ll start looking at population and employment counts in Part Two.