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Areas With Mass Transit See Job Growth, Research Indicates


When Amazon gave its reasons for putting new headquarters in New York and Arlington, Va., one of them was access to public transit. A new study shows other companies think the exact same way. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Few companies are more reliant on people driving cars than the king of the fast-food industry, McDonald's, which sells millions of meals through a drive-through window. So it's no surprise that the sprawling, suburban, corporate home of McDonald's was pretty much accessible only by car.

SHERI MALEC: We actually, at one point, knew that 97 percent of our folks were arriving by themselves in a car.

SCHAPER: Sheri Malec is director of workplace solutions for McDonald's, and she says that 80-acre, park-like setting worked well in the '70s, '80s and '90s. But now it makes it difficult to attract millennials to work there. So a few months ago, McDonald's moved into a new corporate headquarters just west of downtown Chicago.

MALEC: For a job open on my team a couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a young woman and she confided in me, you know, I really wouldn't have applied for this job if it had been in Oak Brook because I don't own a car.

SCHAPER: McDonald's new corporate space is within walking distance of several train stations and bus stops, and now 90 percent of employees don't drive to work.

I'm standing at the Morgan Street L stop, west of Chicago's Loop, in an area that used to be full of food, wholesalers and big warehouses. But not anymore. The transition began when this station opened in 2012.

AUDREY WENNINK: There's been development incessantly since then.

SCHAPER: Audrey Wennink is with Chicago's nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council.

WENNINK: So McDonald's moved here. Google's headquarters are here. I've been here for about three years. We have tons of restaurants. There's tons of co-working spaces.

SCHAPER: The council's research shows that more than half of the jobs created in the Chicago area now are located within a half-mile of public transportation stops. Other studies show similar economic development patterns in downtown areas all across the country, with job growth greatest in the areas that are well-served by transit. And Wennink says it appears that mass transit also fosters economic resiliency.

WENNINK: In the depths of the recession - 2008, 2009 - we lost 150,000 jobs in this region, but we actually gained jobs within a quarter-mile of transit stations.

SCHAPER: This business boom around transit is not just an urban phenomenon. It's happening in the suburbs, too. For instance, Caterpillar just moved its corporate headquarters from Peoria to a Chicago suburban location that is close to a commuter train station. Vicki Noonan is with the commercial real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield.

VICKI NOONAN: Companies are, you know, they're going to the suburbs to build a building. They're putting themselves in a place where they have the ability to have talent come via public transit.

SCHAPER: She points to one suburban building owner who began providing free shuttle buses to transit stations and even showers for those who want to bike from the train.

NOONAN: That office building is almost 100 percent full when others around them are vacant because they took the time to say, OK, we need to figure out our workforce. How are they getting here, and how can we enhance their experience?

SCHAPER: Chicago isn't the only region experiencing this kind of business boom. From Seattle to St. Louis and Minneapolis to Atlanta, companies are relocating to be near transit lines. But Kirk Dillard, who heads Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority, says many of the nation's aging transit systems are in desperate need of upgrades.

KIRK DILLARD: I ride in every day on a metro train that was delivered when Dwight Eisenhower was president. We need new equipment. We need to stay up with 21st-century technology.

SCHAPER: Modernizing transit, Dillard says, requires more state and local cash and a bigger federal investment, too. But advocates say that may be hard to get out of an administration that seems hostile to funding transit and instead favors cars and highways. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.