Built Environment

Amazon’s Robbinsville Fulfillment Center and the Real Life Negative Effects of Job Sprawl

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about what might seem like the abstract negative effects of suburban sprawl, but here’s a real world example you can see for yourself. In an NJ.com article titled “Amazon’s mega warehouse gridlocks traffic in N.J. towns”,  Cristina Rojas writes that the Amazon fulfillment center warehouse in Robbinsville is causing horrible traffic jams in the area. According to the article, “traffic grinds to a halt for miles when more than 4,000 employees are going in and out during rush hour”, and “school buses get caught up in the traffic, kids who drive to school arrive late and it has become nearly impossible to get in and out of the neighborhood that sits across the street from the Gordon Road entrance.” The mayor is now working with residents and other officials to find a “solution” to the traffic nightmare. Unfortunately for residents of the area, the solution is that this warehouse should never have been built in Robbinsville in the first place.

Job sprawl, the movement of employment from historical city and population centers outward into low density suburbia, has been a factor in the development of America since the 1950s. It’s effects of solidifying impoverishment in New Jersey have been at work since then, with poorer residents historically suffering longer and more difficult commutes while wealthier residents have easier access to jobs. Though much has been made about white collar jobs moving back toward metropolitan cores, jobs most accessible to lower-skilled workers tend to remain located in sprawling, low-density suburbia best accessible to those with a car and poorly served by public transportation. The Amazon fulfillment center is a perfect example of this kind of development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

The Amazon fulfillment center in Robbinsville is the definition of sprawling, car-dependent development.

To its credit, the Greater Mercer Travel Management Association tries to relieve this congestion and mitigate the car-dominance of the area by operating a shuttle that runs between the Hamilton Marketplace and the warehouse. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Marketplace itself is a sprawling suburban development, making it difficult to get to in the first place. Though the shuttle connects to NJ Transit busses to nearby communities like Ewing, Trenton, or Lawrence Township, and Princeton, a grueling, two-seat bus and shuttle ride to manage adds layers of mental exhaustion to what is already a physically demanding job.

The answer, to me, is that this warehouse should not have been built in such a rural, inaccessible place that requires a car or difficult transit connections to get to, but rather in one of the state’s struggling cities, where it would have been accessible not only to lower-skilled residents who desperately need access to jobs, but also accessible to the transportation resources that already tend to exist there, such as rail lines in addition to bus service. Specifically, this being a blog about South Jersey, I would loved to have seen this come to Camden, a centralized city with excellent public transit that needs jobs just as much as any impoverished town in America.

Overall, I’m extremely disappointed that leaders around the state did not advocate for these warehouses to get built in or near the communities where they could do the most good. The jobs at these warehouses, which mainly require lower amounts of skill, would make an immense difference in the lives of those living in places like Camden, Trenton, Elizabeth, or Newark. But from what I’ve ever read, no attempt to locate these jobs near those who would most benefit from them was made. Anyone who thinks that we can one day get the manufacturing jobs that built the American middle class back is fooling themselves. This is a lost an opportunity to bring some semblance of honest jobs back to places that lost them decades ago. And it stands notably in contrast to the enormous tax breaks being given to companies hiring white-collar employees to locate in cities like Camden or Newark. We spend so much money on tax breaks for these companies, so much money on social programs aimed at alleviating poverty in our cities, but why do we not attempt to attract employers there who would hire who’s hiring needs would match the skills of the local population? What Christie and others in the state pushing for corporate tax breaks (notably Senate President Steve Sweeney) are trying to do is force revitalization into these cities by bringing in white collar jobs and their white collar employees. But a more holistic, less expensive, and more human approach would be to work with employers who have a chance at giving jobs to the residents already in these places. We’d have a healthier state both socially and economically.

Coming back to Robbinsville, one thing’s for sure, and that’s that online shopping isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the swell in employment that the holidays bring. As MarketWatch wrote last week, shopping in person is beginning to take a backseat to online shopping during the time around Black Friday. A lot of that shopping is done on Amazon.com, and a lot of those boxes are filled by workers in its Robbinsville fulfillment center. The residents of the area are going to spend the foreseeable future battling the traffic this warehouse has brought, and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a patchwork of public transit fixes to the problem of horrible site placement for workers. If anyone we elect had the foresight to see that continuing to build in this sprawling fashion would have these negative consequences, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation today.