Jobs-housing balance, the animation featured on Citylab, and something Brian Taylor said years ago

The other day on Twitter, CityLab shared the very cool graphics on commuting from fellow data lover, Mark Evans (here is Evans’ original blog post; looks to be a very cool blog in general!)

I quipped on Twitter that these graphics are one reason I’ve never been sure that “jobs-housing balance” is necessarily a good planning goal. When I said this in my transit class last fall, my extremely bright students gave me grief about it, and I explained myself badly at that time, but I still have my doubts.

Those doubts were put there ages ago by Brian Taylor, one of my mentors at UCLA. UCLA’s PhD program treated my Master’s Degree in urban planning from the University of Iowa like it is was…inferior, as coastal people inevitably do, so they made me re-take a bunch of classes. It was snobbery; they made it clear that unlike my colleagues who had come from their own, Berkeley’s, or MIT’s hoity toity planning programs, I was hopelessly, hopelessly backwards. No, alas, I had spent my time jumping over clods of dirt, heehaw, and had not studied with some of the most accomplished faculty in the US who had happened to land at the UI. I didn’t have the power or the insight to be able to defend the dear old University of Iowa back then, but looking back, I was very fortunate to have gone there. My guess is that the University of Iowa still retains the quality that I experienced there, though most who taught me have moved, retired, or passed on.

So at UCLA, I had a problem: I had to take my PhD coursework hours, and I was also being expected to retake master’s classes that didn’t count towards advancing my PhD. I’d taken land use and transport classes before, but Brian made it clear he wanted me to take his transportation and land use class, and so I sucked it up and re-took the class with him. I am glad I did; I learned a lot.

I didn’t really learn all that much about that topic, though I did learn some new things. It was a beautifully designed class that Brian seemed born to teach. And from that I learned much about the craft of teaching, perhaps more than in just about any other class I have ever taken. Brian was nothing short of brilliant teaching that class. He loved the topic, he had studied it deeply and carefully for years, and that passion and knowledge came through with every class session. I learned so much about the craft of teaching in that semester that, while I don’t require my students to take classes from me (because I remember sweating the cost and time associated with classes that do not count towards completion), I do try to help them understand that their time spent as teaching assistants and graders should be time spent watching and learning what their mentors do in the classroom and how they do it.*

One day Taylor was talking about something I don’t think he’s ever written about: the conundrum of job-housing balance, and he made some comments that have always stuck with me: Regional rail systems do not benefit from jobs-housing balance. They are easier to design and operate if you have a jobs-housing imbalance. He made the point and moved on, but it’s always fascinated me as problem.

Jobs-housing balance is the idea that in a given part of the region, if you have a balance between housing and jobs, you can minimize harmful, long-distance commutes that, in the contemporary US, are likely to add vehicle miles of travel and, thus, harmful emissions and crash risks, etc.

The best paper I have ever read on jobs-housing balance came from the University of Michigan’s Jonathan Levine:

Levine, Jonathan. (1998) Rethinking Accessibility and Jobs-Housing Balance. Journal of the American Planning Association 64(2):133-149.

Where Levine finds that jobs-housing balance isn’t really all that useful as a travel demand management strategy, but it does help lower wage workers have better access to jobs. It’s a great paper–I am sorry it’s behind a paywall, and if JAPA ever runs a free or discounted special that includes it, I would promote it like crazy so you can read it.

There are some challenges, as Evy Blumenberg points out in her research: Just because there is a job nearby doesn’t mean that there is a job for you nearby. In theory, I have a church accessible by walking from my house, but it’s a Buddhist temple.

Yet when we look at this map of New York and DC, two cities renowned for their regional rail systems, that’s not what you see: You see a whole bunch of people going the same direction at roughly the same time. That’s the sort of scale you can achieve when you have one or two major job centers and a bunch of bedroom communities chock full of people with butts to put in the seats of your commute rail system and nowhere around their houses they can walk to for a job.

And what Evans showed in his commute graphics was exactly the sort of set up that enables a regional rail system to supply commuting mobility at scale, which is what rail is for. Now, Evans doesn’t have any distances on his maps, which makes it hard for people who are not familiar with the regions to interpret the maps. (This is a big problem comparing the Sacramento commute shed with the New York one; arguably, Sacramento and the Bay Area are one giant commute shed and we’d see multiple centers coming through if he did both cities in one animation. How splendid of me to make more work for him…) That would be a good animation, and you could probably see the subcenters way better than with DC/Alexandria/Arlington.

Granted Levine’s findings, this stuff gets us to some pretty thorny issues with regional rail. It isn’t, arguably the job of development to make sure regional transit providers have riders and operating funds, but those things do help if we want a regional rail system. Howling an objection that a regional rail system can still be very useful for nonword travel doesn’t help me out much, because while that’s true, a transit provider in general would like to have more business rather than less, and writing off the commuter market is a pretty big sacrifice to somebody who would like to collect fares.

This is all by way of saying that accessibility, particularly for people disadvantaged in urban housing markets, is not easily reconciled with the sort of land use patterns (achievable ones, not the highest of high density that we’d love to see but seldom do) that promote the passenger aggregation rail can use best use, and neither are mixed uses, necessarily.

BTW, this is not just me going on with my usual gripes about New Urbanism, but it does highlight some goal conflicts within transit-oriented development that keep me thinking.

*And BTW, I learned a lot from Brian, but I have learned subsequently that I’ll never be Brian in the classroom. We are just too different. That’s perhaps the most difficult part of becoming a scholar: trying to adopt the practices of people you admire. You have to experiment with the things that seem to work, and that experimentation takes a great deal of time, and quite a bit of failure, before you find which practices can work for you and which ones can’t, and how you can perhaps adapt or innovate around the ones that can’t. Brian is confident, extroverted, funny, and happy. I am dour, painfully shy, and…sometimes funny. And you can’t be as a scholar what you aren’t as a person.