The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Detroit’s Jobs Imbalance Problem, Parts I and II

Extreme Detroit commuter James Robertson walks along his route to work.  Source:
(Note — A year and a half ago, I wrote about extreme Detroit commuter James Robertson, who daily walked about 21 miles out of a 46-mile commute from his home in Detroit to his job in suburban Rochester Hills.  His story garnered a lot of attention at the time, with most people taking sides in a debate about public transit — those for it and those against it.  I took a different path, and suggested that, while public transit in Detroit is an important issue, the real challenge is the absolute lack of jobs available within the city limits of Detroit.  There are jobs within the Detroit metro area, in numbers you would find consistent with other metro areas nationwide.  However, the city itself is far behind what other central cities nationwide have.  In fact, the lack of jobs in Detroit — and not simply economic loss from the decline of the auto industry — is one of the key factors that drove the city’s fortunes downward.  Below are two posts I published in February 2015 that explore this phenomenon.  Enjoy. -Pete)

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.


Scene from downtown Birmingham, MI.  Source:

So last week I wrote about Detroit’s “Walking Man” James Robertson, who gained a lot of local notoriety for detailing his extreme commute to his low-wage manufacturing job in the suburbs.  Many people have used the story to draw lessons on many Detroit problems, like poor transit, the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, even the local high cost of auto insurance that may prevent low-income people from purchasing cars.  However, those lessons didn’t quite capture the essence of the issue to me.  Last week I tried to lay the groundwork for suggesting that Detroit suffers from a severe jobs imbalance relative to its suburbs, and that imbalance has played a fundamental role in in its economic collapse.  I’ve thought about it some more and would like to see if this makes sense.

Here’s my working theory.  The last 40-50 years for America’s metro areas has been characterized as a period where there’s been substantial shifts in the makeup and composition of jobs within them.  Broadly speaking, middle-income and low-income jobs have migrated from large Northeastern and Midwestern cities to the South and West; manufacturing jobs have largely traveled the same path and continued to move out of the country as well.  Southern and Western “Sun Belt” metros have benefited from the new riches and have economic influence that they’ve never enjoyed before.  Northeastern and Midwestern “Rust Belt” metros have had to adapt to a new slow job growth environment.  Some successfully navigated the transition with a greater reliance on higher-paying jobs in growing sectors where the metro already had a foothold (like New York with finance, Boston with education and consulting, DC with government contracting), while others tried, and failed, to hold onto whatever they previously had.  Detroit was and is in this group, but so are other metros like Milwaukee, Cleveland, Buffalo, and others.

I think there’s general agreement among urbanists on the above points.  Here’s where the break begins to appear between Detroit and other Rust Belt metros.  In the other metros, the new slow job growth environment more or less equally impacted all parts of their respective regions — jobs stagnated or declined nearly across the board, city and suburbs, and the economic pain and sense of loss was fairly static across the region.  Of course, there was some variation because this was a period where the suburban advantage over cities was pronounced, and brought new development to some suburban areas that masqueraded as growth.  But Detroit, as in so many other things I’ve examined about it, differs from other Rust Belt metros.  Its suburbs continued to steadily grow and prosper even as its core continued its descent  Detroit’s job loss to the suburbs was particularly acute, imbalanced and partly created the conditions that led to its bankruptcy and stories like Robertson’s extreme suburban commute.

In essence, Detroit is where the “Favored Quarter” theory ran amok.

There is indeed a part of the Detroit metro area where there was an attempt to, I believe, create a new central business district for the region, outside of Detroit — southeast Oakland County.   Taken together, the 19 suburban communities in the far southeast corner of the county, just north of Detroit’s city limits, have about 427,000 residents within 143 square miles, an area approximately the size of Detroit itself (which, by the way, has about 700,000 residents now).  Anchored by its two largest communities, Troy (81,000) and Southfield (72,000) Southeast Oakland has just under ten percent of the residents within the metro area.  However, the area holds nearly twenty percent of all the region’s jobs:

I had some formatting problems, but the source is the U.S. Census’ Longitudinal Household-Employment Dynamics dataset.

On a per household basis, southeastern Oakland County is the metro area’s leader in providing jobs.  The subarea nearly doubles the number of jobs within its boundaries as the region overall (1.80 versus 0.99), overshadowing both Detroit and its host county (Wayne).  Southeastern Oakland is led by Southfield and Troy, which have nearly 100,000 and 90,000 jobs, respectively.  Southfield has 3.15 jobs per household; Troy, 2.94.

Here’s how southeastern Oakland County’s job centers look:

A view of Big Beaver Road in Troy, MI.  Source:

Fireworks above the Southfield Town Center in Southfield, MI.  Source:

Troy and Southfield both have recognizable office centers, but they are also the location of many small and midsize manufacturers who serve as suppliers for the Big Three automakers and other industrial users.

I think Detroit’s suburban job growth has enabled development in the suburbs that otherwise would’ve taken place in the city.  As a result, you have communities like Birmingham:


Or Royal Oak:


Or Ferndale:


exhibiting the kind of walkable urbanism in their suburban downtowns that typically one sees taking place in city neighborhoods in other cities around the country.

Here’s a visualization I think can help explain how the jobs imbalance plays out and its impact on Detroit.  First, this is how I envision job growth occurring in Sun Belt metros over the last 40+ years, with a split between those in the city and suburbs:

That would be broad job growth distributed rather evenly throughout the metro area, but having the greatest impact in the suburbs.  This is how I would envision the same process happening in Rust Belt metros:

Here, there’s less job growth overall, more of it concentrated in the suburbs, and a growing divergence between them.  But here’s what I think likely happened in metro Detroit:

It’s a rather toxic brew for the city, really.  Stagnant growth overall for the region, with most of it captured in the suburbs.  The job loss in the city itself is steep and dramatic.

I must stress that the above charts are estimates at what I think may have happened in metro Detroit over the last 40+ years.  At this point I’m uncertain whether the development of edge cities in the Detroit metro area is any different than in any other metro nationwide; that would require more research.  However, if there is any truth to this theory, it would do a great deal to explain some of Detroit’s differences with other Rust Belt metros.



So what happened to Detroit’s “Walking Man”?  He had a one-year-later followup by the Detroit Free Press this past February.  His story generated a lot of local sympathy; so much so that three separate GoFundMe pages produced more than $360,000 for Robertson.

What did he do with the money?  First, he bought a 2015 Ford Taurus.  Later, with the urging and assistance of his employer, he moved from his apartment in Detroit’s North End neighborhood to suburban Troy, putting him just a 12-minute drive from his job in Rochester Hills.  The move may have been necessary; the public knowledge of the GoFundMe money began to make Robertson a target in his low-income neighborhood.

He now enjoys the kind of free time that many of us take for granted.  He gets more sleep than he used to watches much more TV than he used to.  He received a raise at work, now making $10.80 an hour instead of $10.55.  Because he’s closer to work he’s able to do overtime, further increasing his income.  He’s adjusting to his new upscale suburban environment.  The change in lifestyle has meant that he’s gained a significant amount of weight and he’s working on that.

A lot of people will look at this as a “happily ever after” situation.  After all, he got a chance to move into the lifestyle that many of us take for granted.  But I wonder of Detroit’s residents really learned the lesson presented to them by his experience.

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