The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Detroit’s Jobs Imbalance Problem

Extreme Detroit commuter James Robertson walks along his route to work.  Source:
If you read blogs that follow urban issues like this one, you’ve likely heard of Detroit’s “Walking Man” James Robertson by now.  And if you have, you’ve likely drawn some of the same conclusions that many others have drawn about Robertson’s plight.  However, there is one glaring oversight in the “Walking Man” discussions that must be noted, and is fundamental to our understanding of Robertson and thousands of other Detroiters like him.  There is a severe city-suburbs job imbalance in metro Detroit, making extreme commutes the rule.
If there were actually more jobs in Detroit, on par with the number of jobs located in other core cities, would this even be an issue?
For the uninitiated, James Robertson was the subject of a Detroit Free Press article two weeks ago that documented his Herculean daily commute from his home in Detroit to his factory job in suburban Rochester Hills.  Each day, Robertson walks about 21 miles of the 46-mile round trip commute to his job at Schain Mold & Engineering, a metal fabrication facility.  Robertson has done this for the last decade, ever since his 1988 Honda Accord wore out on him and Schain Mold moved from its Madison Heights site to the new Rochester Hills location. 
For his 2pm-10pm shift, he leaves his home at 8am and takes a Detroit city bus northward to the city limits, where he switches to a suburban bus (the metro Detroit bus system, SMART, does not make stops in the Detroit city limits).  He rides that bus to its end at the Somerset Collection mall in Troy, then walks 7 miles to his job at Schain Mold.  He usually arrives about 12:30pm.  On his return trip once his shift ends at 10pm, Robertson walks the 7 miles back to catch the last bus leaving the Somerset Collection at 12:59am, and rides that bus to the city limits.  He exits there, and since city buses are no longer running at that time of the evening, he walks the remaining 7 miles to his home.  He usually gets home about 4am.
The story exposed many of the peculiarities of life in metro Detroit, and the Free Press has stretched the story out since its first mention on February 1.  The paper has called this a defining moment for metro Detroit transit.  As I said, the suburban bus system does not make stops in Detroit, even lines that continue all the way to downtown Detroit; similarly, the Detroit bus system ends all service at the city limits.  Furthermore, many suburban communities in metro Detroit can “opt out” of bus service if they decide they don’t want to contribute to the property tax surcharge that funds SMART.  Nearly 40 of Oakland County’s communities elect not to contribute to the suburban system, and Rochester Hills is one of them.  The deplorable condition of bus stops in the city has been documented.  Readers have been offering their feedback on transit, which is admittedly mixed in the Motor City.  The Freep has also noted the high cost of auto insurance in Detroit, which, at an average of about $5,000 per year, is the highest in the nation and figures prominently in Robertson’s inability to afford a car today.  The paper has also noted Robertson’s low pay for a factory job – just $10.55 an hour – and raised the point that manufacturing jobs that paid for a middle-class lifestyle are a thing of the past.  Union leaders with famous names are weighing in and using the story to build momentum for their work.  Since the story came out, more than $350,000 was raised for Robertson in a GoFundMe campaign established by a local college student, and Robertson was given a 2015 Ford Taurus by a local car dealership. 
All of this sorely misses the point.
Reforming Detroit’s ridiculous and inadequate regional transit system, or high auto insurance, low manufacturing job pay and even the charity and generosity of strangers obscures a fundamental problem – Detroit suffers from a shocking lack of jobs within its borders, and it hampers overall regional economic growth.  I’ve gathered some data and done some analysis to prove the point.
I gathered data on population and job totals for 20 cities and metro areas around the country to see how Detroit compares.  I evaluated Detroit against the 11 metro areas that are larger than it, but also against eight peer Midwest/Rust Belt cities and metros.  The results are revealing.
First, here’s the data, from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics database:
As you can see, I used 2010 data to make apples-to-apples data comparisons between population and jobs.  Even though 2010 Census data is getting dated, it is more reliable than American Community Survey population data; also, the LEHD jobs data goes only through 2011.  Sadly, this database lacks jobs data for the Boston area, so it was omitted from the analysis.  This exercise was undertaken to explore economic parity or equity within a region, not necessarily economic health.  In so doing, this analysis does not take into account the quality of jobs – wages, jobs by industry – only job numbers and their location.  The underlying premise is that whatever economic strength a region has can be relatively evenly distributed across municipal borders.
Yet, even before we dig deeper, we can see a couple trends right off the bat that are indicators of overall economic health.  Detroit, highlighted in blue above, in 2010 had a metro area similar in size to San Francisco without the job-rich Silicon Valley, and had nearly one million more residents than the Twin Cities.  However, San Francisco had nearly 300,000 more jobs in the metro area, and the smaller Twin Cities metro still had more jobs than metro Detroit.
But if we normalize the job numbers by population to get a sense of the number of residents for each job, things become a little clearer.  At the metropolitan level, the number of jobs per resident looks like this:
Remember, the higher the number here, the fewer jobs there are available for residents.  Eighteen of the twenty metros are within a relatively tight band of total number of residents per job, between 1.96 (Milwaukee) and 2.40 (Atlanta).  The average for the twenty cities above is 2.24 residents for each job in the metro area.  The outliers are Detroit at 2.59, and Miami at 2.63. 
However, things look much worse for Detroit at the city level:
Detroit has only one job for every 2.95 residents in the city, by far the highest of the twenty cities examined here.  The next highest are Philadelphia (2.43) and Los Angeles (2.36).  Only four of the twenty cities (Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Milwaukee) have fewer city jobs per resident than the corresponding figure at the metro level.  Washington, DC was the only city to show more jobs than residents, resulting in a residents per job figure less than one (0.97).  With an average of 1.72 residents per job in the core cities, Detroit’s high figure, and corresponding lack of jobs, is disturbing. 
Finally, let’s look at how the number of jobs within core cities compares with the number in the suburbs by establishing a ratio:
The cities that show well here, meaning a lower number indicating a higher number of jobs within the city, are cities whose large land area either through annexation (Houston) or consolidation (Indianapolis) keeps more jobs within city boundaries.  Miami (7.55) and Detroit (5.84), and to a lesser extent Atlanta (4.88) and St. Louis (4.46), prove to be the outliers in terms of the lack of jobs within their borders relative to their suburbs.  However, it’s possible that Miami, Atlanta and St. Louis could be forgiven for their poor showing here; the small core cities of Miami and Atlanta comprise less than eight percent of the population of their large metro areas; St. Louis, less than 12 percent.  Even with its well-known population loss, Detroit still holds one-sixth of its region’s population, but it appears to have had an even more precipitous job loss than population loss.
That’s why “Walking Man” James Robertson had to go to such great lengths for his job.  There is just a paucity of jobs within the Motor City.

Blaming the lack of jobs in Detroit proper on the collapse of the auto industry, or overreliance on the manufacturing sector, or the impact of globalization, masks the issues that come from imbalance.  High business and property taxes, and governmental mismanagement and corruption, can likely explain a good deal of Detroit’s jobs imbalance.  But is there something else that could have contributed to this?  I believe there is, which I’ll explore in a future post.

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