More commuters now working in suburbs

January 06, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

Maryland commuters who once spent their mornings drivin from suburban homes to work downtown are steering in another direction: back to the suburbs.

New analyses of 1990 U.S. Census findings show that communities along the outskirts of Washington and Baltimore have become the state's fastest growing job centers, usurping the economic role once played by the cities.

The census figures indicate, for instance, that the number of commuters headed into Baltimore declined by 11 percent over the past 10 years. The number of reverse commuters -- city residents who work in the suburbs -- paralleled the trend, rising from 80,973 in 1970 to 92,320 in 1990, an increase of 14 percent.

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"It's a phenomenon that's steam-rolled along for years and it's played out more completely in the last 10 years," said Michel A. Lettre, assistant director of the Maryland Office of Planning. "It's the suburbanization of jobs."

Researchers with the state planning agency and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council developed their independent analyses over the past week, drawing from data released late last month by the U.S. Census Bureau. The reports confirm the growing economic relationship between the Washington and Baltimore areas.

Nearly 110,000 people live in the Baltimore area and work in the Washington area, a 60.4 percent increase from a decade earlier, according to the regional council's research.

Conversely, 22,000 people from the Washington area go to jobs in the Baltimore area, a 75 percent jump from 1980.

"It says something about what's happening in the corridor counties," said Josef Nathanson, a researcher who prepared the council's analysis.

"They are right in the middle of things and the pattern reflects that."

Anne Arundel and Howard counties best demonstrate the new linkage.

The number of Anne Arundel commuters who are headed to the Washington area, for instance, has more than tripled over the last two decades and now exceeds the number headed into points within the Baltimore area other than Anne Arundel County.

Just as striking is the virtual identity crisis of Howard County. Commuters there are split in thirds with 35,285 commuting to the Washington area, 39,289 staying in the county and 34,058 working in the Baltimore area (not including Howard County), according to the 1990 census.

Those findings herald an end of the traditional political and economic demarcation between the suburbs of Washington and Baltimore.

Just last month, the federal Office of Management and Budget announced plans to recognize the region as a whole, fashioning a new Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Within the pattern of suburban growth, planners recognize two tiers of counties. They are the "older" suburban jurisdictions, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, and the "newer" suburbs, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties.

The greatest job growth has been in the more developed counties that are closer to the city.

Employers are clustered in what planners sometimes refer to as "edge" communities like Owings Mills, Towson, Hunt Valley, White Marsh and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport area.

The counties farther from the city have experienced the greatest population growth in Maryland over the past 20 years, but they are not robust employment centers.

Instead, a growing proportion of the residents of these outer counties are headed to jobs in the counties that border the city.

"People are choosing to live farther out, but their suburb-to-suburb commute is roughly the same distance as people in the older suburbs who commute to the central city," said Mr. Lettre.

An illustration: The share of Harford residents who commute to jobs in Baltimore County rose from 15 percent to 23 percent during the past 20 years while the number of Harford County residents who work in Harford County declined from 68 percent to 53 percent.

The evolution of suburban counties from bedroom communities to job centers is a trend being felt across the country.

Planners claim the trend has tremendous implications locally, raising serious questions about whether Baltimore will remain the area's largest job base. It could further strain regional transportation systems that were designed for suburban-to-city commuting.

The focus of highway construction will need to change from the routes that radiate from the downtown to better interconnections between counties.

Mass transit agencies face an even tougher task: how to attract enough of these dispersed workers to justify the cost of a bus, light rail, or subway route.

State Highway Administration officials say they recognized the changing market in the mid-1980s and have begun focusing on projects like the extensions of Route 32 and Route 100 and the widening of the Baltimore Beltway, all of which are aimed at better east-west traffic flow.

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