Metroplan: Suburban, commuter-driven workforce generates $40 billion boost to Central Arkansas economy

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 498 views 

The central Arkansas metropolitan area is fueling some $38.6 billion in economic activity across the region, but the number and shares of jobs in the suburban areas in west Little Rock, Conway, Bryant and other outlying communities is outpacing urban growth by far.

At the same time, central Arkansas is now seeing its slowest rate of overall population growth since 1980–1990, but communities ranging in size from the fast-growing cities of Benton and Conway to smaller bedroom hamlets like Austin and Ward in Lonoke County are propelling pockets of strong growth outside Little Rock.

Those were some of the demographic trends in the “2017 Demographic Review and Outlook” released Thursday (July 13) by Metroplan, the voluntary regional planning organization for Faulkner, Lonoke, Pulaski and Saline counties. The four-county planning group, whose board is composed of mayors and policymakers across the region, serves more than 25 local communities in central Arkansas.

This edition of the regional forecast and outlook, which is published twice yearly, focuses on the commuting patterns for workers in the region who go back and forth from their homes and jobs. According to the report, in comparison to other metro areas, the Little Rock area has a centralized commuting pattern.

The 24-page study cites a 2006 Brookings Institution study that showed 71% of jobs in central Arkansas were within 10 miles of downtown, a much higher share than Dallas (33%), Chicago (31%), or even similarly-sized Baton Rouge (52%) or Knoxville (56%).

The most recent figures show that 56% of commuters were bound for Little Rock. Other inward flows accounted for another 28%, meaning about 3 out of every 4 commuters headed closer to the regional center to go to work. Another 14% commuted in an outward direction, while just 2% made transverse commutes.

In short, central Arkansas commuters converge on the central area and points along the way going to work, and disperse in a radial pattern on their way home. “The commuting pattern (in central Arkansas) has changed little in recent years,” the report concludes.

LR REMAINS REGION’S JOB CENTER; CONWAY TO SOON SURPASS NLR

Meanwhile, according to available data from the period between 2006 and 2010, Little Rock had nearly 164,000 jobs by place of work. About half of those Little Rock workers came from other cities, towns and rural areas. The vast majority of working persons who live in Little Rock also hold jobs there.

The region’s two other major employment centers include North Little Rock and Conway with 39,000 and 34,000 jobs, respectively. The jobs in North Little Rock are held mainly by commuters from outside the city, while a slight majority of positions in Conway are held by local residents and the 67,000 jobs were spread between smaller suburban communities. The region’s suburban cities have seen a lot of job growth in recent years, but remain secondary in the jobs picture.

In the Little Rock area, where more than half of the region’s jobs are located, employment tends to cluster in downtown areas, around hospitals and in groupings near major interchanges, where shopping centers and office parks are often found.

About 22% of the city’s jobs, or 36,000 positions, are in and near downtown, including the highest- density concentration of workers near the State Capitol and Children’s Hospital. The Midtown area, west of the capitol, north of 22nd Street, to University Avenue, holds another 32,000 jobs, concentrated especially at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and St. Vincent hospitals but also in Riverdale and the Heights.

Little Rock west of University, generally north of Colonel Glenn had about 46,000 jobs, or 28%. Those jobs cover a wider swath of locations and are more dispersed than in downtown and midtown areas.

The annual report on central Arkansas demographics also notes that commuting patterns have changed only gradually during the past several decades in and around the Little Rock area, but the majority of working residents in outlying counties that drove to jobs in Pulaski County thirty years ago still do so today.

At the same time, jobs in the regional core have declined from 1980 through 2010 in absolute numbers as well as in share. “The urban comeback visible in downtown Little Rock, as well as Argenta and Midtown Little Rock, is more a by-product of housing construction, and growth in retail and entertainment than in total jobs,” the report states.

The number and share of jobs in suburban areas like western Little Rock, Conway and other outlying cities has grown, following a national trend in which more and more jobs are located in the suburbs closer to workers’ homes.

Concerning changes in the 2017 population estimates, the number of residents in Benton crossed 35,000 for the first time. The Saline County bedroom community is the fourth-largest city in the region. Little Rock remains the area’s largest city by far with just below 200,000 residents, population data show.

The region’s second and third-largest largest cities are now running neck-and-neck for the position behind Little Rock. North Little Rock remains the region’s second-largest city, with just over 65,000 people, but Conway is closing the gap with just 700 fewer residents. According to the report, Conway has been gaining about two additional residents for each new resident in North Little Rock over the past seven years.

“If this trend continues, it’s an even bet which city will rank as the region’s second-largest for the official census count in 2020,” the report states.

POPULATION GROWTH SLOWING, YET LONOKE COUNTY’S AUSTIN STANDS OUT

Still, the overall trend is one of slowing population growth, which coincides with broader national trends in which both natural population increase and migration are slowing. A recent Census Bureau report shows that 65% of the nearly 3 million residents of the state’s 75 counties experienced an increase in median age over the last year.

Saline County, with fast-growing Benton and Bryant, is the region’s fastest-growing county, yet even here growth has slowed from the previous decade. Faulkner County now ranks in second place for population change, while Lonoke County is growing at less than half its annual rate during the 2000–2010 decade. Central Pulaski County continues growing slowly, with little change from the past decade.

Here are some other highlights of 2017 Metroplan commuter report, which can be found here:

·  On a typical day, about half of the population of central Arkansas — around 330,000 people — goes to work. A few work at home, but the vast majority make a trip.
·  The average commute in central Arkansas takes 23.4 minutes, somewhat less than the U.S. average of 26.4 minutes. Back in 2000, the average commute in central Arkansas was 22.9 minutes.
·  The Little Rock MSA ranks 45th highest in the country in the number of total drivers and ride shares if you count all commuting to work via private vehicles, which include shared rides or carpools, about 94%, or 19 out of every 20 commuters, rode to work in a car or truck.
·  About 84.4% of central Arkansas residents drove alone to work in 2015. This ranks the region 69th in the country, tied with four other metro areas including Indianapolis and Memphis. The top ranking for driving alone went to Huntsville, Ala., with 89%, while New York City was the lowest at 49.9%.
·  The share of employees working from home has grown in recent decades, but remains a minority of jobs at only 2.6%. That compares with the U.S. average of 4.6%.

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