Readings: Growth Trends and Green Hopes

The Brookings Institution's "State of Metropolitan America" offers a look at the demographic future of America's 100 largest metro areas. In this installment: The growth patterns of the last decade don't bode well for those with green hopes.
by | July 15, 2010 AT 3:00 AM

Last week I inaugurated GOVERNING's new Readings section with a post on Brookings's Metropolitan Policy Program's important new report, "State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation." My post highlighted what the authors describe as the coming "cultural generation gap," whereby many cities will and inner suburbs will face the challenge of caring for older, predominantly white retirees while also meeting the needs of younger, predominantly minority populations. The implications of this demographic change are one of the things I'll be discussing with the good folks at Brookings next week. Today, though, I'm going to take up another juicy topic: the clash between green dreams and development realities.

One of the most discussed developments of recent years has been the rebirth of the central city. (Recent examples of the "back-to-the-city" story can be found here, here, and here.) In some ways, the Metropolitan Policy Program's report substantiates this growth: It finds that between 2000 and 2009, the population of cities and inner-suburbs in the nation's 100 largest metro areas grew by nearly 5 percent.

Unfortunately for people searching for evidence of an urban renaissance, that rate of growth was dwarfed by the growth of less- developed outer areas aka the exurbs. Their growth rate was three times higher than the growth rate of cities and inner suburbs. (Sidenote: a majority of all racial and ethnic groups now live in the suburbs, as does every different configuration of households, from childless adults to seniors.) "Overall," write the authors, "households in the suburbs grew by nearly 11 percent from 2000 to 2008, compared to just 2 percent for central cities." As for the much ballyhooed return of people with kids to cities, "married couples with children declined by more than 7 percent in cites in the 2000s," while growing slightly in the suburbs.

changes in household type cities v. suburbs

The implications of this for the environment are, in a word, bad. Transportation is the sector of the economy that contributes the most to greenhouse gases. Yet, as the authors note, fully 40 percent of the population of the 100 largest metro areas now live in these spread out areas. Note the Brookings folk: "This pattern of growth poses stark challenges for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

So is there any hope on the commuting front? Not really. Whiile the use of transit increased slightly from 2000 to 2008 — reversing, the authors note, a 40-year trend — metro regions' reliance on mass transit is minimal. Only in New York and San Francisco do more than a quarter of the population commute by something other than car. Only 19 metro areas can boast of having more than a quarter of its commuters travel to work in a manner other than driving alone.

where commuters travel to work by a mode other than driving alone

More sobering still, 54 of the 100 largest metro areas have no rail transit service at all and only minimal bus services. Half of these transit problem cities are are in the South.

What about those faddish bike commuters (of whom, truth by told, I am one)? Well, two-wheeled commutes (included mopeds and motorcyles) were up very slightly to 1.7 percent by 2008.

share of workers commuting via mass transit

That's nice, but it's more than offset by some other bad news: People no longer walk to work. In 1970, 7.4 percent of the workforce walked to work. By 2008, that number had fallen to just 2.8 percent. Some of those people may now be working at home — about 4 percent of the workforce now does — but that hardly offsets the health and environmental consequences that have resulted from the virtual disappearance of the walking-to-work commuter.

It gets worse:

Today only 21 percent of jobs in large metro areas locate within three miles of downtown while over twice that share (45 percent) are more than 10 miles away from the city. Moreover, job decentralization accelerated through at least the first half of the 2000s.

If that trend continues, it's hard to see the U.S. ever significantly reduce its auto dependence. In short, for anyone who aspires to a greener future for America's metro regions, the trend lines are grim: "[V]ery few of the largest metro areas are seeing dramatic changes toward a 'greener,' lower-carbon commuting future."

Next post: Are claims that American cities are experiencing an urban renaissance really just wishful thinking?