Measuring Downtowns

The Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Wendell Cox, has just released a new compilation of downtown job data. His data include the number of jobs in the nation’s 52 largest metropolitan areas (those with populations of more than a million people), the percentage of each region’s jobs that is downtown, and transit’s share of commuting to those downtown jobs. These numbers are based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Surveys for 2006-2008, so are mostly from before the recent recession.


Click image to download report.

One thing the data show is how New York is unlike any other metropolitan area in the country. New York is the only metro area that has more than a million jobs downtown, and it has just shy of two million. Number two is Chicago, which has just over 500,000. New York is the only metro area that has more than 15 percent of its jobs downtown, and it has 22 percent. New York is the only metro area in which transit carries more than 60 percent of downtown commuters; in fact, it’s 77 percent.

Cox defines New York’s downtown as Manhattan south of 59th Street, which is less than 8 square miles. So that’s a job density of more than 250,000 workers per square mile, another number that is vastly larger than in any other metropolitan area.

Besides New York, just five metro areas (Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia) have more than 200,000 downtown jobs, and just six more have more than 100,000 jobs (Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Denver–Minneapolis just misses with 99,315 jobs). Transit’s share of downtown commuting is directly correlated with the concentration of jobs: its above 40 percent for all those downtowns with more than 200,000 jobs, but only 13 to 37 percent for downtowns with 100,000 to 200,000 jobs.

Outside of downtowns, transit’s share of commuting is much smaller. In New York it’s 16 percent, which is higher than in any metro area as a whole (including downtowns). But in the next eight metro areas its just 5 to 9 percent; it’s 4.3 percent in Portland; and in the remaining metro areas its just 0.5 to 3.5 percent.

Cox shows that transit has low shares of commuting to most major employment centers outside of downtowns, even including some that have more than 200,000 jobs. Transit carries just 4.6 percent of the 211,000 workers in the O’Hare area of Chicago; just 2.2 percent of the 205,000 workers of the Love Field area of Dallas; just 3.7 percent of the 203,000 workers of Los Angeles’ South Bay Corridor; and just 2.9 percent of the 374,000 jobs of the I-880/US 101 corridor in San Jose. So, to make transit work, you not only need a concentration of jobs, but the job center also has to be at the hub of a transit hub-and-spoke system.

For these reasons, Cox likes to say that transit commuting is really about downtown, meaning its almost impossible to increase transit’s share of commuting outside of downtown areas. But since, in most regions, such a small percentage of workers work downtown, upping transit’s share of downtown commuters will have minimal impact on the region as a whole.

The numbers in Cox’s latest report can be compared with those in the previous edition, which was for the year 2000. Between the two reports, the number of jobs in downtown New York grew by 235,000–more than the size of most major downtowns. But the number declined in many other urban areas, including Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington. All of these regions have rail transit, which shows that trains are no guarantee that downtowns will stay healthy.

In any case, regardless of how you feel about rail transit, downtown revitalization, or other urban issues, Cox’s data are useful and informative in many ways.

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5 thoughts on “Measuring Downtowns

  1. transitboy

    Not sure how you defined downtown, but this article from the Los Angeles Times http://articles.latimes.com/2007/feb/21/local/me-downtown21 said this about downtown LA jobs: The study found that the number of jobs downtown continues to lag — a holdover from an era when government jobs downsized and corporate headquarters left the city center. Downtown payroll numbers for 2005, the last year available, show a total of 418,000 — down from a high of 605,000 in 1995. Obviously 418,000 is a lot higher than between 100,000 and 200,000. It shows it is easy to change the definition of what you are reporting to get whatever statistics you want depending on your argument. In this case the argument seems to be that downtowns, with the exception of New York, are unimportant; anyone that lives in Los Angeles and is stuck in gridlock around downtown would have to conclude that downtown LA is important.

  2. Ohai

    But the number declined in many other urban areas . . .

    Can you really draw that conclusion from this data? The older report lumps together San Francisco and San Jose, for example, while in the recent data they’re separate. If you combine them again it appears as if CBD employment in San Francisco-San Jose has actually increased by about 8%.

    Cox even notes that the census tract boundaries, which he used to define the CBDs, have changed since 2000, and writes, “the CBD employment share data in the 3rd Edition is not comparable to that of previous editions.”

  3. prk166

    Seeing how few jobs in the Metroplex are in either dwntwn Ft Worth or Dallas and at that the paltry # of those workers who take transit has me wondering why people insist transit matters. In just a, the whole Metroplex MSA has shot past a number of traditional big, transit oriented cities. It’s still growing fast and only the traditional big 3 – Chicago, LA and NY – are bigger.

    The same with Houston.

  4. JOHN1000

    Something is wrong with the numbers.
    It says Washington DC workers are decreasing?

    Washington DC’s downtown must not include the federal government. No decreases there – and a huge building boom for more offices and places to house all the new feds.

  5. Scott

    Side-note on city picture shown.
    That’s Chicago on Michigan Avenue at about 200 south & 200 east. Straight ahead of the road is the Wrigley building (gum), which is just across the river. To the right is the Art Institute building and — off-screen is Millennium Park.

    The tallest building seen — to the right — is the Aon building, previously called Big Stan or the Standard Oil building at about 1,100′ which is the 4th tallest in the city. The building with the pyramidal top is “Prudential 2″ being 5′ shy of 1,000′ & the 6th tallest. There are 2 similar looking buildings in Philadelphia.

    The “Loop” is to the left, which is smaller than downtown & bound by the elevated tracks (aka the el).

    The building in front or seen “above” the bus is a standard box-type, designed by Mies van der Roe (sp?) & contains Federal offices.

    The population of downtown has more than doubled in the last ~15 years, while the city population has been relatively stable, although down from its peak by about 800,000.

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