Imperial Oil’s recent announcement that it will be moving its Calgary headquarters from downtown to Quarry Park raises a debate often heard in cities. Is it a good idea to “decentralize” employment outside of the downtown?
You will often hear the argument that our city should spread employment areas throughout the city so that people can “live closer to work.” This is not something only heard in Calgary, but in nearly every city where commuting is a challenge. The problem, as many people see it, is that everyone is trying to move in one direction to a single location (downtown), causing congestion and long commutes. The argument goes that if employment was closer to people’s homes, they would more easily be able to walk, bike or take transit, or at least their commute would be shorter. As well, people will be travelling in all directions, so we would be making more efficient use of road space (and transit capacity). The best way to do this, as the argument goes, is to spread employment throughout the city.
I will tell you why this is wrong.
The idea seems simple enough, right? If employment is located closer to homes, then people will be closer to work. There is, however, a very large assumption being made with this assertion. The assumption is that the homes that the employment will be close to are the same as homes the workers actually live in. However, this is not always the case and there are several reasons why.
Changing Careers vs. Changing Homes- The first problem with the idea that people will live close to their work is that people change careers more often then they change homes. While people change both their jobs and home locations more often in their early part of their careers (until around their mid 30s) and then less in their later careers, the fact is that most people will change jobs several times while living in the same home. Even if the first job is close to their home, it may not be the case that the second or third job will be, especially if jobs are spread out throughout the entire city. So while employment might be close to people’s homes, there is little to guarantee that they actually work there. If this was the case everyone who worked at the Foothills Hospital would live in University Heights, St. Andrews Heights or Parkdale. That is clearly not the case.
Housing Location/Career Choice Timing Discrepancy- The second problem is the timing of when people choose where to live and when they choose a career. Many people choose to purchase a home after they have settled into a career, so they can choose a location that is closer to their work, but this is not always the case. Sometimes people make a choice of where to live before they settle into a long term career and being able to predict where that job will be is difficult.
Dual Income Families- The third problem with living close to work is the fact that most households now have two income earners. That means two different jobs, most likely with different companies. In a city with spread out employment, this means that even if one partner is working close to home, it is likely the other isn’t, and if employment is spread out, it also probably means that transit between the two locations is poor at best and non-existent at worst. Ask yourself how many couples do you know work at the same location?
Employment Specialization- Spreading employment out throughout the city works when anyone can work any job, or at least work at a job that can be located anywhere in the city. This makes sense in medieval cities, or even early-industrial cities where working in any one trade gave you an opportunity to work at multiple possible locations (although medieval and industrial cities also had a high degree of geographic concentration of industries). However, in the present economy, jobs are highly specialized, and depending on your specialization, the number of possible locations you can work may be limited. Simply having employment close to where you live is no guarantee it will be employment in your field, let alone your specialization.
Non-Employment Housing Location Considerations- The last reason why people won’t live near work if employment is that living close to work isn’t the only consideration people have when choosing where to live. Access to schools, green space and amenities, housing cost, safety, the size and style of the home and a whole host of other factors play into the decision people make of where to live. So while your work may have lots of residential opportunities within walking distance, perhaps the need for a school that fits your children’s needs is more of a priority, and you end up living farther away.
So if spreading employment out doesn’t increase transit, walking or cycling usage, does that mean that centralizing it does? The answer is most often a strong, if qualified, yes. A concentrated central core of employment is often the best method to increase transit, walking and bicycling use in the city. This is why places with concentrated employment cores, such as New York or Chicago have much higher transit ridership (as well as walking and cycling) than say, Houston, Atlanta or Los Angeles (even though LA has a higher average density than New York). Alon Levy has a brilliant post about this very topic that can be found here: http://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/a-transit-city-is-a-centralized-city/ .
Centralizing employment is good for transit.
The most obvious reason centralized cities perform better on transit, pedestrian and cycling measures is because a central location is the most optimal location to reduce the average commuting distance throughout the entire city. While a location in say, Quarry Park, will be closer to southeast and south residents, it will be worse for people living in every other quadrant of the city. This is one of the reasons why transit usage in the downtown is 50% of commuters. Outside of the downtown, transit usage drops rapidly.
A quick exercise with a transit map can show why. Take our transit map below and compare traveling from any area of the city to the Downtown vs. Quarry Park (note also that this is a proposed future map, almost no transit lines currently serve Quarry Park, and those that do are only limited stop services- i.e. the 302).
Sure, stations on the future SE LRT have a more direct route to Quarry Park than downtown, but almost all others do not. Those that do have a direct route, such as from the north-central line, still have travel through downtown to get to Quarry Park, making a longer trip. For residents of the NW especially, the move to quarry park makes trips via transit much longer indeed.
That being said, of all the non-downtown locations for an office park, Quarry Park is pretty good. The SE LRT (what we call the Deerfoot Line) provides access for southeast and north central residents directly and northwest residents via a single transfer downtown. Residents in west and south Calgary can get to the site via the Heritage BRT (either directly or via a transfer at Westbrook, Richmond Road, Heritage Park or Heritage LRT station) and northeast residents can use either the Foothills BRT or the Barlow Express Bus to get to the site.
Another reason why concentrating employment is a good idea is that it addresses the issue of people changing careers without requiring a corresponding change in residential location to maintain a similar style of commute. If all jobs are located in a concentrated core area, changing jobs doesn’t mean a change of how you travel to work. You can change jobs several times, but because jobs are all in a concentrated area, you don’t really change where you work. This is especially true in Calgary. An engineer working for an oil and gas company downtown can change jobs dozens of times, never having to move more than 6 blocks and taking the train the entire time. It isn’t a massive change in someone’s commute to get off one transit station later, or walk an extra 2 blocks. Moving jobs from one quadrant of the city to another is quite different, which is why Imperial’s move to Quarry park will likely create difficulties for many transit commuters. This is also why crosstown routes are so important in our city. They allow people to continue to take transit while moving jobs, while also eliminating longer trips and multiple transfers for many trips.
This is not to say that all employment should be in the centre of a city. There will, and should, always be employment areas outside the centre, such as universities, hospitals, industrial areas or other office areas. These secondary employment areas are found in every city. While they are not ideal for transit (transit ridership is always lower in non-downtown locations compared to downtown), walking or cycling as compared to the central city, much improvement can be made to make them more transit-, pedestrian- and cycling-friendly. The real challenge is not to “de-concentrate” employment away from the downtown, but to ensure that employment outside the downtown is concentrated around transit stations. In short, moving employment from the downtown into suburban office parks (or even to peripheral transit stations) is not a great idea, moving employment from isolated office parks to pedestrian friendly areas around transit stations is a good idea.
The primary land use goal of a city trying to encourage transit should be to concentrate as much employment as it can within a centralized core (usually office) well serviced by transit. Along with this it should focus on ensuring secondary employment areas are clustered around transit stations (preferably along radial transit lines that also serves the centralized core to minimize transfers). This allows for an optimization of existing transit infrastructure. Third, it should make it so employment that is adjacent to transit is also designed to be easily accessible to that transit (i.e. not having to cross a freeway to get from the train station to work) and also has residential and service development adjacent to it.
So, is it a good thing for transit that Imperial Oil is moving out to Quarry Park? No. But of all the suburban office locations, is Quarry Park a better location than others for transit? Yes.