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.

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13 thoughts on “Amazon’s Robbinsville Fulfillment Center and the Real Life Negative Effects of Job Sprawl

  1. I understand your focus on putting jobs near transit, but look at the situation for a moment from Amazon’s perspective: What does the company need in a warehouse location? Lots of cheap land and, most critically, easy connections to a regional transportation network and a large customer base (they are in the process of moving goods, after all). Warehousing is a commodity business, and speed and low cost are the success differentiators.

    From that perspective, this is a great location and building the warehouse in Camden would not have worked; it’s too difficult to get trucks in and out quickly. I’m reminded of my old industry, the newspaper industry, and their mass exodus from downtown centers in the 1980s and 1990s, when technology began to allow for data transmission to remote locations. The no. 1 reason they moved? It had become so difficult and time-consuming to deliver large rolls of newsprint to downtown printing locations, and to get all those delivery trucks out in time for early-morning home delivery to the suburbs. Time was money, and traffic = wasted time.

    That having been said, I do think that Amazon could, as suggested, stagger shifts, and maybe they could run some shuttles from other places than Hamilton Marketplace. And I also fault Robbinsville for not paying sufficient attention to the traffic ramifications; they could have required new road infrastructure to accommodate the additional capacity so that existing traffic capacity was not compromised. (When IBM built a new regional headquarters in suburban Connecticut, the town required them to build an entirely new entrance ramp to the nearby interstate so that their employees would not be clogging up local roads driving to and from work.)

    But this also highlights the larger issue of having all land-use planning done exclusively at the local level. A warehouse of this size is clearly a development of regional significance, and underscores the need for some kind of regional coordination so that neighboring municipalities like Upper Freehold could have been at the table. (However, I believe Upper Freehold is in Monmouth County, so even having the coordination at the county level would not have been perfect. But you get the idea.)

    • Well, we’re obliviously stuck with what we got, and can only go from here. Do you know why the TMA won’t run that shuttle directly into Trenton’s transit center, where it’s connection with the River Line and Northeast Corridor would open up access to the jobs? I think that’s a huge oversight, and makes a lot more *regional* sense than ending at an outdoor shopping mall.

  2. MB says:

    This is not a great location for this warehouse. They have put a 2015 company in a warehouse surrounded by 1950s farm roads. This happened because Robbinsville put it on the edge of their town and did not consider or care about the neighboring towns who are footing the agony of it all. Allentown/Upper Freehold is a very small Main Street kind of town that now has these huge numbers of cars flowing through it. It’s ridiculous and everyone involved should be fired.

    • As I mentioned above, Robbinsville could have required Amazon to build sufficient traffic infrastructure so that existing traffic patterns would not be disrupted. I now see that the mayor of Robbinsville is planning to sue Amazon over the traffic issue; perhaps Allentown and Upper Freehold could also sue Robbinsville for allowing this development to create negative traffic externalities.

      • I should also add that putting commercial ratables at the edge of town so that the neighbors suffer all the traffic problems is a time-honored practice in New Jersey. The solution would be to require regional traffic impact statements, etc., for proposed developments larger than a certain size. But that has to come from the state.

  3. Bend, bend, bend, bend, break.

    The ever-dispersing flow of residents and jobs to fringe locations will continue for a little while longer as people and businesses chase cheap land and public subsidies. And then… things will simply fail. People have been building towns and cities in a predictable manner for centuries and that system works. The post WWII suburban experiment that seems so normal to us will prove to be a flash in the pan. Everything will eventually revert to durable and efficient compact mixed use neighborhoods over time. Let the suburban ship hit the iceberg. Let it sink. But you might wan to slip on a vest and tuck yourself in to one of the life boats ahead of the curve.

  4. Pingback: Job Sprawl - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  5. Good article. To be fair to Robbinsville, Amazon is employing way more people than was authorized at the planning negotiations. The broader problem is clear though – local jurisdictions can monopolize the rateables from commercial centers like this without having to pay for the externalities, i.e. greater regional traffic. Pretty much all Jersey towns engage in this rateables chase, none of them provide enough housing near to workplaces, and the crappy traffic we have is a direct consequence.

    • Exactly. And that ignoring of the externalities of their actions, very often negative, is an immense shame. We should be working together as regions, not giving each other black eyes. The state might have prospered in the 20th century by operating that way, but it won’t in the 21st.

  6. what about that permit the Christie DEP just issues to build a new sewage treatment plant to serve new development on a farm in Plumsted – discharge to headwaters of Crsswicks Creek. Insane land use and water resource decision. FOCUS.

  7. Great piece. This reminds me so much of this just ridiculously biased piece I recently read in the Inquirer trying to claim we should build transit to KOP because that’s where people commute to. No, we should let KOP die the death it deserves to and continue strengthening Conshohocken and eventually Norristown.

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