Against the drumbeat of distressing reports about job loss in America comes a gloomy assessment today about a time when jobs were being created.

Between 1998 and 2006, nearly all U.S. metropolitan areas - including Philadelphia's - experienced a drop in downtown employment as jobs migrated to the suburbs, in many cases out of the reach of city residents without cars or other means of getting to them, according to the Brookings Institution.

The metro area comprising Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington ranked fifth-worst of the 98 regions studied, with 63.7 percent of its jobs more than 10 miles from city center, the Washington think tank found.

Much like residential sprawl, such "job sprawl," Brookings warns, can undermine the economic health of cities and regions.

"From transportation to workforce development to regional innovation and the provision of social services, the spatial distribution of a metro area's jobs can ultimately influence its economic productivity, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion and equity," wrote Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research analyst at Brookings and author of the 23-page report.

Her hope is that the report will help shape decisions on how the $787 billion in federal stimulus money is spent.

"This is a chance for local and regional leaders and policymakers to start planning . . . to connect these decisions on transportation and housing and take into consideration where the jobs are," Kneebone said in an interview Friday.

Brookings analyzed the location of private-sector jobs in 98 of the largest metropolitan areas. It found that only 21 percent of employees in those areas worked within three miles of downtown, and that 45 percent had jobs more than 10 miles from the city center.

Outward job shift was most pronounced in Southern metro areas, with a 2.6 percentage-point decline in city-center jobs and a 4.8 point gain in the outermost suburbs. The average for the overall study group was a 2.1 point decline in city jobs and a 2.6 increase in the suburbs.

Among the most centralized metropolitan areas were Honolulu and Lexington, Ky., where the share of jobs within three miles of downtown in 2006 was 55.6 percent and 48 percent, respectively, compared with 15.5 percent for Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington.

The difference is not as drastic - but still considerable - when the Philadelphia region is compared with others that Brookings classified as "large employment centers," those with more than 500,000 jobs.

In that category, the most centralized metro areas were Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, Va., with 36.4 percent of jobs within three miles of city center, and New York-northern New Jersey-Long Island, 34.8 percent.

Across the 98 metro areas studied, almost every major industry had been decentralized, with manufacturing, transportation, warehousing, finance, insurance, utilities, and real estate showing the greatest increases in the share of jobs more than 10 miles from downtown.

Don't count on this recession to reverse the trend. Kneebone noted that the study period included a range of economic conditions - including boom times, a recession, and a mild recovery.

"Regardless of where we were in the economic cycle, these trends persisted," she said. "To really make progress . . . will take policy action."

Not that she is against suburban jobs. What troubles her is that jobs are spreading farther from urban areas without the housing and infrastructure to make those jobs accessible to people of all income levels and without increasing the carbon footprint of regions.

For instance, American suburbs show an increasing number of poor residents, Kneebone said, yet service-sector jobs for which those people might qualify have been growing in high-income suburbs that do not have affordable housing or adequate public transportation.

"There's a new spatial mismatch - among the suburbs," she said.

Though not surprised by the Brookings findings, Barry Seymour, director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, said an important distinction about this region needed to be noted.

"It's developing a variety of [employment] centers," Seymour said. "Center City is certainly the core for the region. But places like King of Prussia . . . are becoming business centers in their own right."

That could be why this region "also has relatively low congestion" compared with others, Seymour said. "Not everyone is trying to get to the same point."

The Brookings findings, said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, "would have a bit more urgency if gasoline prices get back to $4 a gallon."

Job sprawl "is still the result of historically cheap gasoline in this country," Hughes said. "People find it very easy to have long commutes. We are trapping ourselves in a pattern of automobile dependency, and we may pay the price if energy costs spike up again."

Job Sprawl in Metro Areas

Greatest sprawl                     Percentage of jobs 10+       (500,000+ jobs/metro area)         miles from city center

Detroit-Warren-Livonia                        77.4%

Chicago-Naperville-Joliet                     68.7

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington                  66.9

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana         65.6

Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington            63.7

Most centralized areas             Percentage of jobs within   (500,000+ jobs/metro area)         3 miles of city center

Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News         36.4%

New York-North Jersey-Long Island         34.8

Salt Lake City                                 32.8

Las Vegas-Paradise                           29.9

Boston-Cambridge-Quincy                     28.0

Source: Brookings Institution

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Go to http://go.philly.com/sprawl to read the Brookings Institution report on sprawl.

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Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.