New Report: "Bright Flight" Means Younger, More Affluent Cities
Cities, like Washington, D.C., are attracting a younger, more affluent, white popluation. Photo by Poldavo (Alex).

Cities, like Washington, D.C., are attracting a younger, more affluent, white popluation. Photo by Poldavo (Alex).

A new study from the Brookings Institution, “The State of Metropolitan America,” shows that, for the first time, America’s suburbs are more likely to be home to minorities, the poor and a rapidly growing older population, while younger, educated whites move to cities for better jobs and shorter commutes. The report analyzes census data from 2000-2008 in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas, revealing a reversal of historical demographic trends. (See an interactive map here.)

“What used to be white flight to the suburbs is turning into ‘bright flight’ to cities that have become magnets for aspiring young adults who see access to knowledge-based jobs, public transportation and a new city ambiance as an attraction,” said William H. Frey, an internationally known demographer, who co-wrote the report. (See a related survey by the Wall Street Journal: “The Next Youth-Magnet Cities.”)

As cities attract young, affluent Americans, the suburbs now have the largest poor population in the country – and they are disproportionately home to elderly people. This means there is a shift in many of the problems that once stereotypically belonged to cities, including crime, poverty and housing problems.

Now that we stand on the forefront of a “decade of reckoning,” the report says, U.S. policymakers and planners will have to think about how to support suburban communities, while maintaining the vibrancy of cities. This makes it ever more important to consider transportation and urban planning. In summary, this can be achieved by:

  • Accommodating more efficient growth by encouraging greater coordination between housing and transportation planning
  • Enhancing community affordability and vitality for seniors, which includes requiring the expenditure of federal transportation and housing funds to take into account the specific needs of older populations
  • Reducing income inequality by restoring and growing the productive capacity of the nation’s auto communities


The good news? Transit use increased significantly for the first time in 40 years (5% of commuters traveled by transit in 2008, compared to 4.6% in 2000). Bus commuters, especially, helped contribute to this growth.

However, three out of four Americans still choose to drive alone to work. Out of the 100 largest cities, only New York and San Francisco have fewer than three-quarters of workers who commute by car. Carpooling, in particular, experienced the largest decline in its share of commutes. Interestingly, an increasing number of Hispanic and black commuters switched from carpooling to driving alone.

The number of two-wheeled commutes increased slightly, but the proportion of Americans that walk to work continued to decline and now stands at less than 3% – cut by more than half since 1970.

“While it is uncertain whether these trends will continue,” the report says, “it does suggest that very few of the largest metro areas are seeing dramatic changes toward a “greener,” lower-carbon commuting future

What are some implied recommendations to help combat these challenges?

  • Provide alternatives to driving to work, including rail and bus transit
  • Locate jobs closer to downtown or city centers
  • Invest in cleaner vehicles and alternative transportation modes
  • Develop integrated regional plans that link housing, transport, jobs, and land use to create compact and transit-rich communities
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