Amazon’s HQ2 will show rail transit to be key to competitiveness

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, September 24, 2017

Many experts on metropolitan geography and economics are eyeing closely Amazon’s choice of a North American metro area to host its “HQ2,” a second headquarters that the online retail giant says will equal its current downtown Seattle base camp in size and scope. The company promises to bring at least 50,000 direct jobs paying six-figure salaries, along with thousands of indirect jobs in the various industries that will support Amazon and its workers.

Amazon’s “Domes” under construction in Seattle, with a LimeBike shared bike in the foreground. Photo by SounderBruce on Flickr.com.
The firm’s press release says only that it requires an “urban or suburban location” in a metro area with a population of at least 1 million “with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent” and “a stable and business-friendly environment.” However, observers like the Brookings Institution are saying that strong preference is being given to regions that have well-developed public transit systems, preferably with rail transit, along with being within 45 minutes of a major international airport. The company wants cities bidding on HQ2 to “think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.”

There are certainly a number of North American cities that fit this bill. The challenge will be finding the right combination of sufficient available acreage (a distinct difficulty in built-out cities like those along the Northeast Corridor) and the type of community that todays well-educated, tech-oriented workforce desires: a diverse, walkable urban environment with a plethora of amenities and activities.

Some are pointing to the Washington, D.C. region as a strong contender, with some room to build in its close-in, Metro-accessible suburbs and a vibrant cultural scene that has attracted scores of Millennial newcomers (myself included). Amazon owner Jeff Bezos has bought a second home in D.C. and purchased The Washington Post last year. Another strong possibility is Toronto, North America’s third largest metro, which is making great strides towards a more European-style regional rail network and may attract Amazon as a hedge against the uncertainties of current US politics.

A Metro Transit light rail trian at Target Field station in Minneapolis, one of the top contenders for Amazon’s HQ2. Photo by Mac H on Flickr.com.
Others being seriously discussed are Minneapolis-St. Paul (with its large customer service-oriented workforce thanks largely to Target’s headquarters, its many universities and its growing light rail system), Atlanta (with room to build and the world’s busiest airport, though the Georgia capital’s sprawled-out urban form is a drawback), San Jose (already a tech hub that is fairly well connected by rail and, fingers crossed, will be getting high-speed rail within the next two decades, but also suffers from the effects of sprawl), Austin (a minor tech hub that has a starter commuter rail line and is on a corridor that is ripe for high-performance intercity rail development) and Gary, Ind. (close enough to Chicago and its airports and connected to it by America’s last remaining interurban but with more room to build out).

Educated observers think that HQ2 will be a game changer for the city that lands it. I’m willing to posit that it will result in the lucky locale investing in significant rail transit improvement. If it’s a region like D.C. with an existing, expansive rail transit system, it may only result in some upgrades around the edges. But if HQ2 comes to a Minneapolis, Atlanta, Austin or Gary, there is hope that it could spur major expansions of rail transit that have long been on the planning books.

Also in the running are a handful of locales whose population barely reaches the 1 million threshold but lack rail transit, such as Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point in North Carolina. Though I grew up in Greensboro and believe both metro areas have a lot to offer, I’m afraid the lack of rail transit and of major hub airports will be deal-breakers (though plans for a light rail line linking Chapel Hill, Durham and the Research Triangle Park are starting to move forward, with a target opening in 2028). However, if it becomes clear to local government and business leaders in these second-tier metros that developing rail transit would greatly improve their chances of landing a similar economic powerhouse in the future, then the positive impact of Amazon’s decision may be felt well beyond the immediate vicinity of the new corporate campus.

That being said, it shouldn’t just take the specter of getting the largesse of a major multinational conglomerate from outside one’s region to spur the development of the infrastructure and amenities that make for an attractive, competitive 21st-century city. These investments should be made to cultivate homegrown local talent and entrepreneurship. If everyone spends all their effort chasing after a decreasing number of huge firms, then many will be left behind. But if all cities and regions put money behind their own endemic innovators and agents of growth and positive change, then prosperity — and the kinds of livable, walkable places people desire and care about — will be more broadly shared.

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