More Folks Work at Home and More Homes Where No One Works

Steven Polzin's picture

I find it intriguing when I hear folks talk about how high energy prices will cause a tipping point and everyone will rush back into the city in order to afford to commute to work.  If, or as, higher costs for energy begin to play a greater role in location choice it is as likely that they will force even more employers to move to the suburbs.  In many urban areas we may be well past the point where fuel price pressures to minimize travel would result in land use changes that move population back to town. 

Perhaps even more intriguing is the number of planners that feel residential clustering around employment is the be all and end all of urban planning to minimize travel (no doubt the majority of readers of this august sophisticated Planetizen resource are far more nuanced in their thinking).  Interestingly, two of the hottest trends in travel behavior are the growth in the work-at-home segment of the workforce and the share of households with no workers.  The American Community Survey indicted that 3.6 percent of workers work at home.  This share exceeds the bike and walk shares and is rapidly gaining ground on transit users.  This is a share that could explode with meaningfully higher energy costs or constraints on fuel availability.  Aging population, corporate restructuring, privatization, and ever improving/low cost communications and computerization are among the trends that support this phenomenon. 

Perhaps less attention grabbing is the magnitude of the share of households that do not have any workers.  While demographers and other are speculating on how the baby boomers will behave in old age, specifically, if or when they will quit working, there is every reason to believe that the share of households with no workers will increase with the aging of the country.  Only massive immigration or a stunning reversal of fertility trends could create a population profile that is likely to have higher labor force participation in the next few decades.  The figure below shows shares of households with no workers by state.  Nationally 27 percent of households have no workers, 31.6 percent in Florida and as high as 38 percent in West Virginia.  That is a whole lot of folks whose travel decisions and housing location decisions are not driven by a need to commute to downtown or any other jobs. 

So the answer is simple, as energy costs get higher we move all those folks that don't work and place them in the distant suburbs, put the folks that work at home next to them and then optimize the home and workplace locations for the remainder.  The policy wonks can conjure up a set of regulations and incentives to help fix this nasty problem of higher energy costs and of course all that real estate activity will get the housing market going again. 

              Share of Households with Zero Workers, 2005 ACS


If fuel prices do continue to outpace inflation and incomes they may begin to have a more meaningful affect on travel behaviors.  The nature and magnitude of that response will no doubt suprise many.  The costs of higher fuel prices are impacting individuals and small businesses but it is important to keep in mind that the several hundred dollar per year increase in fuel cost for an average vehicle is well less than the cost of a sunroof, those fancy new oversized tires and rims folks seem to be buying in droves, and only a fraction of the cost of those new navigation systems increasingly common in vehicles.  Wake me up when gas passes $6 per gallon then we can talk about the impacts on travel and location decisions.  In the meantime keep in mind access to work is important but only one of many travel destinations and a declining share of all travel. 
Steven Polzin is the director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.



Ummm.. I beg to differ. Look

Ummm.. I beg to differ. Look at Europe. More poignantly, look at London. Gas prices are above $6, traffic is congested like nowhere else (to the point where driving in some parts of the city is 'taxed'), and yet real estate in the city is some of the most expensive in the world due to demand.

But then again, it's not all about work in Europe like it is to the bobbleheads in the U.S.....

Poo Poo is an urban planner in Washington, DC

Just Move The Old People To The Suburbs

That would be convenient for the city planners, but as people get older, many of them have vision problems that prevent them from driving. Move them out to the distant suburbs at 65, and they may be trapped in their houses when they stop driving at 75. But at that point, I guess we could just keep moving them around to locations that are convenient for the city planners, like goods being stored in warehouses.

Charles Siegel

Aging population are more problematic than planners think

Recently I've been working on surveys of elderly communities in suburban areas that indicate that the aging population has in large part gotten used to the "freedom" that comes with driving. While a large part are aware that their driving days are numbered, they have every intention of keeping their cars up until that point. Typical responses go something like this "I am not interested in mass transit because I have my own car, but I hope it is there when I need it." (this respondent was 72 yrs.) This seems to make the simplistic notion of the baby boom generation driving the return to denser walkable neighborhoods a little more problematic.

Add to this the fact that elderly communities are developed on less valuable land (like trailer parks, and vacant lots along suburban highways) and it makes accessibility for the elderly a real problem.

pretty much agree

I agree that gas prices are likely very inelastic until $5-$8/ gallon. His point about the aging population seems valid. I'm not so sure about some of the counterpoints. When the elderly start to have trouble driving, their solution is rarely to just move into "the city", since central cities meet fewer of their needs anyway. What might typically happen is that they seek assistance from volunteers and churches for daily help. If it gets extreme enough, some move into assisted living centers which are many times, in suburban nodes of medium density.

But, I generally agree with his overall point which is that high energy prices won't necessarily lead to a massive migration from suburb to city. However, I do think it will lead to considerable less driving. Just because one lives in the suburbs doesn't mean they can't temper their driving habits - type of car, live/work choices, shopping habits. I think all those things would change first.

A real estate pension fund manager asked me a couple years back what I thought about a comment that said "CBD real estate is gold because of looming higher energy prices". We eventually both concluded that what would be the more likely of outcomes would be an increased suburbanization of office space. To a large extent, I think we have already seen this, but it would likely accelerate with higher gas prices as well as reduced driving. There would be some modest migration into CBDs, downtowns I would bet.

Satellite Cities without a central city?

Hey CP, So will the pattern eventually look like suburban satellite cities surrounding a hollowed out core?

If we knew

we would both have fame and fortune. I have no idea, but if I had to bet, I would say we'll see more of suburban-type sprawl, CBD development, and everything in between including new urbanism (the weighting of each type will likely be different). I think we'll see fewer very large homes on large lots.

I think most locations (city, suburb, or other) go through lifecycles of development, growth, stagnation, decline, and eventual redevelopment. Some avoid this cycle or it takes a long time, but it seems to repeat itself quite often.

I think one author describes what has happened historically in regards to your question quite well - Joel Garreau in Edge City. But, about the future, probably the only truism is that humans are almost always wrong about it and usually error to the side of thinking about things too much as they are today. I imagine I'm making that same mistake.

working at home

I've thought that neighborhoods need to establish shared offices; places where residents can walk or bike and set up shop for all or part of the day. Great way to meet neighbors over coffee breaks or at the copier or fixing the crashed network.....

Working at the coffee shop

Interesting. In the meantime sounds like a local coffee shop with wifi should install a good copier in the back.

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