Connecting Workers and Workplaces

The corporate expansion decisions of a small oscilloscope maker in the 1950s are considered the symbolic spark that ignited the explosive growth of Portland’s western suburbs.

First, the young Tektronix Inc. moved its only manufacturing facility in 1951 from Southeast Hawthorne in inner-city Portland to create its Sunset plant near what is now Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Washington County. A few short years later, Tek opened its landmark industrial campus in Beaverton.

As a high-tech pioneer in Oregon, Tek wanted to locate in a place where workers could find affordable housing, as well as have a short drive to work. That was considered an enlightened and a well-meaning workforce strategy for industry, but — decades later — a commuting dilemma for Oregon.

Here’s the irony. The Tektronix story is a local example of what happened across the nation in the following years as thousands of employers relocated or started up in the suburbs of our nation's largest cities. The legacy is a nation of urban transit systems posing great challenges for commuters trying to get to a job in the suburbs.

By 1960, the Portland area was served by a disconnected network of privately owned bus companies — Rose City Transit in the city and the suburban Blue Lines. Privately operated transit in Portland, as in most other American cities, was in a free-fall toward extinction. The state legislature created TriMet, a tax-supported public transit system in 1969, when a new trickle of public investment began to grow bus ridership.

When I commuted to Tektronix in Beaverton by bus from Southeast Portland, the one-way trip took about an hour. That was in 1990. When corporate headquarters moved to Wilsonville a year later, the trip took 90 minutes. 

It appears I was just an average commuter, according to the Brookings Institution, which joined the discussion on the future of transit with a research report released July 11,  which included a set of recommendations.

“Even though most jobs are located near transit, the typical employer can access only 27 percent of metropolitan workers within 90 minutes,” said the Brookings Institution in a summary of the report entitled “Where the jobs are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.”

“More than three quarters of jobs are in neighborhoods served by transit, but only 27 per cent of the workforce can get to those jobs via mass transit within 90 minutes,” The Brookings report says

If our inadequate suburban systems are to improve, communities must make a deliberate decision to change, the report says.

“Our research shows that current transit systems are unprepared to adequately connect workplaces with the workforce, but there are several steps metropolitan leaders can take to improve their networks.”

The Brookings Institution study points to Atlanta as a community at the crossroads with a willingness to change. “It’s a city that has a relatively high transit coverage rate, 94 percent, while suburban transit covers only 45 percent of its jobs.”

“This dichotomy highlights the consequences of uncoordinated transportation investments and land-use decisions. An upcoming transportation referendum in the Atlanta region, one of the largest in the country, could help better connect employers to workers by increasing transit investment,” concludes the report.