Suburban Transit’s Newest Potential Advocate: Real-Estate Developers?

  • Author: Amy Conrick
  • Date: January 7, 2016

A September 2015 report by consulting company Newmark, Grubb, Knight, Frank (NGKF) looked at suburban areas that have a high proportion of obsolescent office buildings to identify factors for that obsolescence. They enumerated 6 factors that make leasing space in a particular suburban location less desirable: four are related to the building itself and its amenities; the other two are parking and location. For transit folk, it is this latter factor that is important. NGKF defined desirable location as being within ½ mile of transit or having premier highway access. The report notes steps office building owners can take to improve their desirability for leases. The question is, how willing are those owners to advocate for better transit access to increase their building's marketability?

We must also recognize, however, that simply having a bus run near your office isn’t the only answer. As the 2011 Brookings Institute study showed, the transit travel time is also a factor. As noted in my last blog post, how often are people willing to travel over an hour on transit to get to a job? So a person’s origin is equally important. Are they traversing from the city center to a suburb by transit? Or do they already live in the suburbs, in which case they will most likely drive to their job in another suburb; and based on my local area in the Washington DC suburbs, cross-county traffic can be just as miserable as the suburb-to-city center journey.

Combine this with the recent data showing lower driving rates among millenials, and you could have a real problem for suburban office owners. Read this quote from a recent blog:

Office Park in Broomfield, Colorado

At a New Year’s Eve party, I was talking to a business exec running a tech company located in a suburban office building. He was complaining about the number of times he would interview a person who would say he wasn't crazy about taking the subway and then a bus all the way out to the ‘burbs every day. The exec got increasingly frustrated and at one point responded “So get a car! That’s what grown-ups do when they get jobs!” The candidate responded that he didn’t know how to drive, didn’t have a license, and would keep looking for a job that allowed him to use a bike or transit.

Now this job candidate may have had the option of buying a car, but just chose not to. What about those for whom car ownership is not an option because of limited income—those who may work not in the tech industry but in surrounding businesses, such as food service, retail stores, child care, etc? Any improvements to public transit that serve suburban-traveling millenials will equally serve those who depend on public options to get to their jobs.

The NGKF report concluded that, as always, context and nuance are important. “We find that key tenant preferences vary by market, and that is what has driven this analysis.” They continue, however, to say that “location (relative to mass transit and highways) and access to building and neighborhood amenities appear to be a common theme among tenant preferences nationwide.”

So what does this mean for transit? Well, a few things. , when it meets certain characteristics:

  • Transit can be a desirable option when the transit trip to a destination does not take significantly longer than it would take to drive (a common comparison) to the same destination. Also, the transit trip cannot be perceived as being significantly long—period.
  • Related to the point above, localized, frequent transit that connects people to jobs and amenities (shops, restaurants) will be viewed as an asset to a region that will attract employers and workers. This is where land use planning comes into play, something we’re seeing with the “town centers” that are being built in the suburbs. Combine these relatively small-circumference activity centers with transit that moves people within them at short headways, and you’re beginning to create the type of community that appeals to those now flocking back to city centers.
  • We need to look at new models of transit—maybe the military analogy of a rapid response force applies here. Rather than large buses traversing extended travel corridors, what would a smaller vehicle traveling smaller distances, almost on demand, look like? Again, we are seeing this in the new Bridj and Split models springing up in urban areas. How could these apply to the suburbs? Or do those suburbs have to look more like urban areas, with a concentrated core, before this type of service will work?

Perhaps interviewing that job seeker described above, who refused to drive or make a long transit trip, could be helpful in identifying just what type of transportation option would convince him to take a job in the suburbs.


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