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Will Big Companies Really Be Able to Resist Sprawl’s Siren Song?

7:23 AM PDT on April 30, 2010

2396692881_001a7608f1.jpgNorthrop Grumman’s current offices in Virginia. (Photo: the monk via Flickr)

The Harvard Business Review piece about forward-thinking businesses moving to urban rather than suburban locations continues to attract hopeful attention around the Streetsblog Network.

But as some bloggers are pointing out, the trend — if it is one — is far from clear-cut.

First, FABB Blog
(the blog of Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling) asks whether the
Virginia county’s recent withdrawal of support for bicycling
infrastructure funding will make it less appealing to businesses in the
future, in part because many young workers want to live and work in
less car-dependent communities:

We’ve seen this shift in the increase in people who are choosingbikes for transportation. They are mostly younger people who are sickof being stuck in traffic, of paying $3/gallon for gas, and who wantbetter bike facilities. Communities like DC, NYC, and Arlington Countyunderstand this shift and are changing their environment in response.Older, less progressive communities like Fairfax are finding itdifficult to move away from the older mindset of moving more people in more cars on wider roads.

FABB Blog cites the example of a suburban office park that is vying
to be the new headquarters of Northrop Grumman. As discussed on Greater Greater Washington,
the aerospace and defense technology firm’s other option is in
Ballston, a more transit-friendly community in Arlington County,

But GGW is skeptical that employee desire for the better commuting
options offered by the Ballston location will be a deciding factor — or
whether the old-school benefits offered by sprawl will prevail:

In the immediate sense, employers don’t directly benefit fromreducing car trips or pay for increasing them. Employees benefitthrough better transit or pay through worse traffic on commutes, butthe traffic impact also gets spread out to all other users of theroadways. The companies benefit in the long run, but often make choicesbased on short-term costs and benefits.

As a result, large employers like Northrop have strong economicincentives to choose sprawling areas with cheaper land, where theydon’t have to worry about sharing any space with pesky retail and onlytheir employees, the region, and the company’s long-termcompetitiveness lose out.

This dynamic often pits more walkable, inner jurisdictions like DCand Arlington against sprawlier ones like Fairfax, but not always. AsFairfax builds Tysons Corner into a real city, they’ll face similarissues within the County. Will Metro be enough of an incentive forcorporations to headquarter in Tysons, or will they continue to leantoward the easy yet harmful route of picking the sprawliest officeparks?

More from around the network: At Discovering Urbanism, an intriguing post about how walkable urbanism gives retailers more ways to lure shoppers into their stores. Bike Skirt is big-time not feeling the bike love in Birmingham, Alabama. And Hard Drive
gives a listen to NPR’s new "Songs for the Urban Cyclist" — and wonders
whether the public radio folks think all city bicyclists look like
Kevin Bacon.

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