Friday, July 7, 2006

The decline of the traditional commuter city?

   While everybody knows that jobs are moving out of cities and to suburbs, there are still plenty of people who commute to the city each day, right?  After all, isn't commuting traffic still terrible?  Here's some fascinating statistics from the Census Bureau that show that many American cities don't really gain that much in human occupancy during the day. 

   Quiz:  Which big city (of more than 500,000 residents) grows by the highest percentage during the day?  Hmmm … It would have to be a city with a traditional downtown and lots of offices to attract suburban commuters (factories are almost gone from the cities, of course) and perhaps with a fairly modest resident population compared to its suburbs.  Answer?

   It's Washington, D.C., which grows by 71.8 % each work day, according to the 2000 Census -- far ahead of second-place Boston, which expands it population by 41.1%.  Seattle (only 28.4%) , Denver, Portland (Ore.), San Francisco, and Charlotte (a sun belt city, but one with compact boundaries and big office towers) round out the top six.

   What's most surprising to me, however, is that many other traditional "downtown" cities don't expand by all that much.  Philadelphia grows by only 5.9%, Chicago by only 4.9 %, and even New York by only 7.0%.  (In other words, of the nearly 8.6 million routine occupants on a typical New York day, more than 90 % live in the city!)  Los Angeles's number is 3.5%.

   Second quiz: Which big cities lose population during the day?  Two very different cities -- Detroit, which has a moribund downtown, and San Jose, which is the quintessence of the new mobile suburb-city without a true focus.

   These statistics further support the view that today's so-called "suburbs" are more and more self-sufficient realms that have little reliance on their so-called "central city."  For most metro areas, not only do most suburbanites work in the suburbs, but most people who work in the city also live there.  These facts complicate transportation and social policies that assume a traditional relationship between city and suburb.

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