Living in a quaint, leafy suburb and commuting to a bustling downtown for work is an enduring image of American life. The image is the unacknowledged philosophical backbone of regional planning, as civic leaders promote radial transportation networks and suburban towns regulate out construction that offends “village” atmospheres. The only problem is that these efforts are increasingly detached from reality in places like Kansas City, where the idea of a central city and bedroom suburbs is, at best, nostalgic.
For instance, if we go back to 1990, Jackson County, which contains the Kansas City core, contained more than half of all employment in the Kansas City area’s most populous counties (Jackson, Johnson, Clay, and Wyandotte). Johnson County (KS) was a distant second, with about a quarter of the region’s employment. Johnson County could even have been considered a bedroom community, with more people commuting out of than commuting into the county.
Flash forward to 2013 and the situation had changed radically. While Jackson County still housed about the same number of workers as it did in 1990, Johnson County added nearly 120,000 jobs. More workers still commute from Johnson County to Jackson County than vice versa, but the gap narrowed significantly. Johnson County is also now a net importer of workers. Jackson County’s share of employment among Kansas City’s largest counties dropped from 52% to 44% in the period, while Johnson County’s share reached 36%.
Residents in the Kansas City region are more likely than ever to work in, and not just live in, the suburbs. Unfortunately, Kansas City officials still have a tendency to channel investment to the downtown area to a degree that is disproportionate to its actual economic importance and promote transportation plans (public and otherwise) that would be more appropriate to 1920 than to 2020. The region would be better off planning for the city it has rather than an outdated image of the past.