Industrial Sprawl

Back in September, I went on the podcast Well There’s Your Problem to talk about the relationship between freight transportation and industrial sprawl. Ever since, I have been meaning to follow up with some more extended written thoughts on the subject; this post is my much-belated attempt at that.

Of late, there has been much discussion about e-commerce, warehousing, essential work, and the future of cities. Whether it be retail space becoming pop-up warehouses, or the general uptick in demand for urban industrial space, these shifts would suggest that warehousing and distribution are likely to become ever more visible presences in the cores of America’s cities in the coming years.

What makes this trend remarkable, of course, is the degree to which it constitutes a dramatic movement against the past century’s currents in the geography of American goods. As is true for much else in America through those hundred years, the story of freight, warehousing, and industry has been one of dramatic (and destructive) sprawl — both within and between metropolitan areas. Take Chicago, for example. In 1947, about 75% of manufacturing employment in the region was located within the city limits of Chicago. Fifty years later, in 1997, that proportion had almost flipped — all while the Chicago region had lost more than half of its total manufacturing employment.

Though certainly not without nuance (I think, for example, most would agree that moving more noxious industries away from people is a good thing), this transition has been a damaging one; industrial sprawl has done great damage to equity and the environment. This dramatic locative shift is one which thus should be central to our understanding of the postwar American city, and is one that I see as being an essential framing for discussions about freight movement. For though industrial sprawl was driven by a number of factors, its extent and form was fundamentally shaped by a regime change in transportation. Much as automobility enabled modern suburbia, trucking defined industrial sprawl.

A Short History of American Industrial Geography

As the proliferation of the steam engine (and cheap coal) freed manufacturing from the constraints of water power during the mid-18th century, industrial enterprises began to centralize. Whereas businesses requiring any significant mechanical power were once forced to locate along streams or rivers with adequate size and elevation change to rotate a water wheel with some given energetic output, the portability of fossil fuels allowed enterprises to cluster around larger markets — permitting them to deliver goods to those markets cheaply, while placing themselves within walking (or streetcar, or subway) distance of a massively expanded pool of labor.

Reinforcing this industrial centralization were changes in transportation geography associated with the coming of railroads. On the most basic level, the US’s rail network was, roughly, a radial construction, designed to link various sorts of hinterlands with urban markets. Urban industry thus enjoyed radically improved market access, reinforcing urbanization, and, by all accounts, railroads’ radiality. Rail service quality was also extremely context-dependent. Because trains in that era almost always carried traffic for multiple customers, proximity to aggregation points (rail classification yards) translated into reduced shipment travel times and increased service reliability and reduced costs; your car of stuffs would have to brave fewer intermediate handlings before being placed on a long distance train if your factory was clustered with others near the origin of a long distance train.

Finally, even if you did choose to place your factory in ‘the sticks,’ the nature of railroads simply never allowed real industrial sprawl. The American rail network peaked at an impressive, and likely excessive, 250,000 route miles around 1915 — but even in this time of abundance, constraints remained. A boxcar cannot sprout tires and drive; to access rail service, one needed to be served by a spur off a rail line, and to achieve that access economically, all but the largest manufacturing concerns (which could justify their own branches) essentially needed to be within sight of — if not actually next to — a rail line. The resulting patterns of linear industrial location are visible even without leaving central cities: the blocks of industry abutting the Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia and the Bay Ridge Branch in Brooklyn are illustrative of this dynamic.

What evolved, then, were urbanized industrial metropoles. Though certainly not without a degree of polycentricity — Paterson, Newark, Elizabeth and Jersey City all once were dense industrial hubs of their own right, complementing New York — production was relatively concentrated. We see this in the data presented in the first chart, showing relative center-city dominance of metropolitan in 1947, or in the incredible statistic that, in 1910, about sixty-seven percent of manufacturing employment in New York City was located in Manhattan below Fourteenth Street. We see its transportational dimension in a survey of New York-area manufacturers which found that fully seventy-one percent of structures in Northern New Jersey built before 1920 had rail spurs. And we see its manifestation in the multistory and densely packed physicality of older industrial buildings — a reflection of contemporary technical constraints, to be sure, but also of the simple economics of urban land.

Industrial Sprawl

This order was not to last. Much as the postwar decades saw a fundamental reorganization of urban America’s human geography (to the suburbs and the Sunbelt), they, too, saw a transformation of industrial geography. The transformation which took place did so on two axes: one between metropolitan regions, and one inside them. On the former, the postwar decades saw a marked shift of industry to the South and West, as well as to non-metropolitan areas of the nation. On the latter, the same decades saw a shift of manufacturing out of cities into their suburbs. Though both ‘halves’ of this story are critically important to understanding the fates of industrial cities in the postwar years, it is the latter on which we will focus. For one, it seems to have been the dominant effect: even in metropolitan areas whose manufacturing employment grew, center city employment declined in both percentage and absolute terms (see below). For another, in contemporary discussions about those left behind by capital flight, city dwellers are remarkably absent. Understanding the discontents of the white working class is indubitably an important subject, but to tell deindustrialization’s story without regard to urban cores is to, bluntly, tell it incompletely: after all, from peak to present, New York City has lost more manufacturing jobs than the entire state of Ohio.

Sprawl Before Trucks: Space, Labor, Policy

Industrial sprawl began well before industrial employment in cities peaked. among these was the simple scarcity of urban space. As cities built up and out, expanding industries rapidly found themselves without open or lightly used land on which to build their factories. Though redevelopment of built-up land could be — and was — pursued, the difficulties of assembling lots large enough for modern industrial facilities at reasonable costs and in a reasonable time frame were sufficiently great to discourage industrial redevelopment and expansion in the city. This search for industrial space was made all the more urgent by contemporary technological shifts. As machinery came to be powered electrically, rather than by intricately linked belts and shafts, industrial engineers were afforded massively increased flexibility in the organization of a production line. No longer did processes have to be spatially clustered close to a source of mechanical power; long, continuous-flow production lines (some thousands of feet long) became possible. The ramifications of this should be obvious: in a built-up city, it is rare for there to be hundreds — let alone thousands — of feet of unbroken space where one could erect such a line. Even manufacturers which had an established building in a city, then, had an incentive to look outwards.

The search for space was made all the more difficult by the politics of land use in an inhabited city. As the 20th Century wore on and the dangers of living next to especially more polluting industries became more known, those around urban industry became increasingly loath to allow its expansion. Through zoning codes and other means of regulation, it became the project of many to rein in urban industrial growth, to keep factories away from residences. This was a worthy quest in many cases, but it nevertheless contributed the dynamic of decentralization; hostile cities made for constrained plants, and an outwards orientation for growth.

Labor politics are also central to understanding sprawl. As union strength grew in the first four decades of the 20th Century, it increasingly became the strategy of industrial America to pursue decentralization in order to move production into more ‘business-friendly’ climates (read: those with weaker unions and lower prevailing wages), to atomize the workforce, and to provide duplication of facilities. Perhaps the most famous examples of this behavior come from the auto industry. Starting in the 1920s, the ‘big three’ and their suppliers began to spin small, usually skilled parts manufacturing operations off from their large urban plants into Detroit’s hinterland. In the 1930s, larger operations followed; after a 1935 strike at a parts plant in Toledo which shut every single Chevrolet assembly in North America, General Motors rapidly began duplicating ‘bottleneck’ facilities, taking care to locate new plants in suburban or rural centers with weak union movements.

These ‘runaway shops’ were aided in their flight by contemporary policies. Postwar defense largesse was overwhelmingly one directed outwards from urban centers: for example, per Sugrue’s The Origins of The Urban Crisis (which is fantastic, and which, along with Prof. Sugrue’s other writings, heavily informed this post), over ninety percent of federal investment in the Detroit region was allocated to areas outside the core. Though some of this disparity was likely a manifestation of the other, preexisting anti-urban biases in industrial location, there equally were more active federal interventions. As concerns about a Soviet attack grew through the late 1940s and 1950s, the DoD began to actively encourage the duplication and decentralization of production to reduce the potential productive risk associated with any single nuclear strike. This policy, known as the “parallel plant” policy, led to the scattering of production across metropolitan regions, and indeed across the country.

Less directly, but perhaps more importantly, the government subsidized industrial sprawl through its housing policies. The subsidization of white suburban homeownership and automobility, and the subsequent decentralization of a large portion of the American workforce, drew employers outwards. This was done not just to increase their proximity to suburbanites, but also to provide space for those suburbanites’ cars: as commutes shifted from transit to cars, parking needs only increased the pressure to find more space.

There is finally the question of taxation. Legacy urban centers tended (at that time) to have higher local tax rates than the suburban municipalities of their hinterlands; in some metro areas which bridged state lines, this difference was additionally accentuated by state-level tax disparities. The dominant industrial-geographic impact of tax differences was likely some minor hastening in the interstate movement of industry (especially to the South and West), but it did have some impact on intra-metropolitan location decisions as well, aiding this process of suburbanization.

It is incontrovertible that the above set of economic and political forces would have reshaped American industrial geography even within a rail-centric model of freight transportation. Indeed, GM’s policy of decentralization and duplication began before trucks became such a powerful force in transportation, creating a peculiarly rail-centric variety of sprawl around Detroit. However, it seems unlikely that industrial sprawl would have taken place to the degree that it did, and in the form that it did, had it not been for the rise of American roads. Though these forces added to the logic of sprawl, their ability to shape geography was fundamentally limited by structurally centripetal rail networks; highways (and especially the trucks they carried) removed that final barrier.

Much like a car, a truck is a largely ‘atomic’ mode of transportation. In contrast with trains, whose operating paradigm is either primarily (through the existence of sufficient traffic on a corridor to fill an entire train) or secondarily (through the assembly of individual freight cars with similar origins and destinations into a train) reliant on traffic density, trucks need not rely on aggregation; they generally move a single load on a point to point route. This allows them to serve light-density markets and decentralized industrial geographies without much of an efficiency loss.

The other important parallel between cars and trucks is their incompatibility with dense urban environments. Long, unwieldy, and without efficient and generally dedicated infrastructure like trains, trucks have long had a difficult time navigating narrow and crowded urban streets — something becoming only more true as truck lengths have increased. Though the desire of trucking and industrial interests to improve access to urban manufacturing hubs became a key force behind several early urban highway projects (for example, New York’s Holland Tunnel and Gowanus Expressway), this was a necessarily Sisyphean task. Beyond the operational issues that come with large trucks on small streets, trucks simply take up more space than their steel-wheeled counterparts. Truck-centric industrial design (with its loading docks, parking, and maneuvering space) made the dense, street-fronting industrial buildings necessary for urban location all but impossible; the factories of today overwhelmingly lie in fields of parking in areas where such expansive plots may be found — in the hinterland.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the systematic subsidization of truck transportation in the United States. We have already touched on some such mechanisms, whose subsidies to trucks existed insofar as they subsidized truck-friendly decentralization, but there, too, existed a vast amount of direct subsidy to the mode. This is most obviously evident in the creation of a federally funded network of highways. Though user fees initially recouped a large fraction of highway operating and maintenance costs, recent evidence on the allocation of costs between road users would suggest that truckers underpay significantly relative to their impact on road maintenance. Before partial transportation deregulation in the 1970s and early 1980s, this subsidy asymmetry was also compounded by government rate policies. And these elements of subsidy are to say nothing of the divergence between highway costs and revenues seen since the 1960s, or the manifold other unpriced (and perhaps unpriceable) impacts trucks and highway-centricity have had on us.

From this convergence of industrial and transportation policy evolved a new industrial landscape, centered around trucks, and in the suburbs. Boston’s Route 128 beltway is illustrative. The years following its completion saw an explosion in investment. Through the mid-1950s, about forty percent of all spending on new industrial facilities in the Boston region was directed to facilities along this corridor. Defined in more than their location by this highway, these new plants had about eight-tenths of a parking space per employee, overwhelmingly generated car commutes, negligibly prioritized access to freight rail, and were overwhelmingly larger and flatter than their predecessors. Though some of these businesses were new to the region, or were ones which grew in moving, a large proportion of corridor activity was nevertheless attributable to relocations, and fully seventy-five percent of those relocated businesses had previously resided in Boston’s urban core. Route 128 assuredly built on a preexisting set of industrial instincts towards flight, but its construction is nevertheless what unlocked and shaped them. With the access provided by its belt, Boston’s manufacturers need not renovate their (rail-centric) urban facilities to accommodate growth; they could discard them for a new, more accessible, seemingly more modern truck-oriented facility on the burgeoning urban periphery.

The relationship between freight transportation and these outwards movements is emphasized even further by evidence from the New York region. Before 1920, about seventy percent of industrial properties in northern New Jersey were built with rail spurs. These plants were those of an earlier generation of decentralization; they were the mills of Paterson, the refineries of Elizabeth, the sprawling factories of Kearny. By the 1950s, New Jersey’s industrial growth had turned outwards, to the industrial parks along the New Jersey Turnpike and other arterials. Towns like South Brunswick and Edison became home to an endless sprawl of single story industrial parks, providing expansive suburban locations for industry, and thus contributing to the precipitous decline in New York’s industrial employment over that time. Unsurprisingly, this highway-led industrial development had deep ramifications for manufacturers’ choice of shipping mode: by the mid 1950s, the share of new industrial construction in Northern New Jersey which was built with rail spurs had dropped below forty percent. Forty percent is by no means an insignificant figure, but it is nevertheless a far cry from the seventy percent of mere decades before — and is indicative of how here, too, highways and trucks increasingly shaped sprawl.

Patterns like these are visible everywhere in America. It would seem no accident that, on the above charts of industrial employment patterns, the steepest declines in the urban share of regional industrial employment followed the buildout of highway systems through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. As Chicago (to take another example) built out its highways and beltways, industrial growth in the periphery exploded; today, the highest concentrations of industrial employment in the region lie in industrial parks in the urban periphery, near highway interchanges and along arterials. Similar stories can be told in Atlanta, San Francisco, and beyond: the modern industrial landscape is indelibly tied to the geography of our roads — roads which now carry the plurality of American freight.


This new, truck-oriented industrial geographic regime has, of course, had ramifications which go far beyond simple matters of placement in space. In the world of transportation, industrial decentralization hastened rail traffic declines; reliant as they are on traffic density and aggregation, the dispersed goods movement patterns and lower traffic densities that came with sprawling industrial geographies reduced traffic beyond the basic shift wrought by the appearance of the truck and its subsidies. Railroads have attempted with some success to adopt to this new regime with the introduction of intermodal services, which combine the last-mile flexibility of trucks with the long-haul efficiencies of rail. However (and I will delve into this more in the future) this marriage has been somewhat of a Faustian bargain; sprawl has made rail structurally less competitive.

More important than these matters of network bias have been sprawl’s socioeconomic ramifications. American industrial history is riven with racism and racial disparity; the story of sprawl is no different. As Sugrue has discussed at length, the outward migration of high-paying industrial jobs after World War II worked in conjunction with rampant, institutionalized racism in the housing market, discrimination within the labor market, and anemic investment in high-quality public transit to interdict Black access to new factories at the metropolitan edge. Without mobility, seniority, or access to more skilled job classifications, capital flight (and the concomitant rise of factory automation) translated into economic disenfranchisement for Black communities in many industrial cities. In 1960, the unemployment rate for white autoworkers in Detroit was 5.8%. For their Black counterparts? 19.7%. Deindustrialization was obviously only one of many interlinked factors working against urban prosperity in the postwar years. However, insofar as (unionized) production jobs were the route into the American middle class for many, this set of institutional discriminations implicated in industrial migration away from cities is difficult to read as anything but a great denial of opportunity — one whose ramifications for urban economies in post-industrial metropoles are visible to this day.

The impacts of sprawl-induced urban deindustrialization has left long shadows. So, too, has the infrastructure that supported it. Americas urban highways were violently constructed, and ever since, have been perpetrating another, slower violence of pollution against the communities alongside them. Though the coalitions supporting urban highway plans generally problematized automotive access more so than they did trucking, the latter use did, too, play a role in supporting these constructions. Once built, the trucks using these roads have disproportionately contributed to the pollutants which emanate from them. The average heavy-duty diesel truck emits about nineteen times more PM2.5s per vehicle-mile than the average gas powered car — PM2.5 being a pollutant which has been linked to, among other things, increased COVID-19 morbidity. Railroads are by no means corporate exemplars of good environmental stewardship, but even with their current fleet of diesel locomotives, they offer radically reduced emissions relative to trucks. This is to say that, on top of all else, sprawl has radically increased the environmental footprint of freight in this country, especially in vulnerable communities. I think it’s critically important to note, here, that keeping certain types of industry in densely populated areas is also bad environmental policy, given the very real pollution risks associated therewith, but to banish all to the suburban fringe does not seem altogether wise, either. A nuanced, justice-oriented approach to these questions is what was and is required, and is anything but what has been provided.


America clearly needs improved surface transportation policy. This is perhaps most apparent to the average person in our country’s passenger transportation systems, but freight needs attention too. As we enter the 2020s and fitfully seek to to confront issues of climate, economy, and justice, assembling the sorts of policies that may begin to right these failures of planning and incentives seems critical. Next time, we shall discuss what a ‘new freight policy’ could and should be.

8 thoughts on “Industrial Sprawl

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