The Transportation Side Effects of 'The Great Inversion'

Low pay and long, pricey commutes often go hand in hand.
June 2017
Traffic in Los Angeles
Traffic in Los Angeles (Shutterstock)
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

People move around. Jobs generally don’t. That’s a problem in cities, especially for the increasing number of low-wage workers who help make them run.

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about how affluent folks are moving to the center of cities, displacing people of modest means. That was the thesis of the book The Great Inversion, by Governing senior editor and columnist Alan Ehrenhalt. It’s also the subject of endless hand-wringing by urban planners, who welcome urban revitalization but fear the social impact of displacement of poor and working-class people.

Just as worrisome, though, is the question of how this affects the commutes of low-wage workers. Because even as they are being displaced, in many cases the jobs available to them are being concentrated even more in the areas they’re being displaced from.

Most of today’s big employment centers either are old downtowns that reinvented themselves as office centers in the 1970s and ’80s, or are “edge cities” that grew up around office employment in close-in suburbs. Think Century City in Los Angeles, The Galleria in Houston, Buckhead in Atlanta. These downtowns and edge cities have become very expensive places to live. And as they’ve become more expensive, they’ve added those sought-after urban amenities, such as restaurants, bars, hotels, entertainment venues. That’s led to more low-wage jobs.

That’s the opposite of the way things used to be. When downtowns and edge cities were mostly office centers, they were populated largely by middle-class workers who commuted from elsewhere. But now these office centers are places where employees want to live as well as work. As a result, bars, restaurants and hotels move in, turning these places from job centers into activity centers. The new downtowns and edge cities employ a lot of cooks and busboys and room cleaners and security guards -- the very workers who have been displaced. These workers ultimately can’t afford the cars (or the stiff parking fees) required to make the commute.

There are still lots of office-based job centers in the suburbs that operate like old edge cities. And every once in a while a new one pops up, like ExxonMobil’s new headquarters in suburban Houston, which would appear to cut against the urban trend. But like downtowns and edge cities, these places ultimately price out low-income workers.

Cities are dynamic places, and there will always be a lot of jostling and dislocation. But in the revitalized cities of today, we have a housing problem and no obvious solution. In these activity centers -- as in American society in general -- it’s the consumers who win. For now, the people who serve those consumers are forced to endure long commutes, low wages and a lot of inconvenience.