GRIDLOCK

Amazon may add 50,000 commuters to one of the most congested cities in North America

Unmanned.
Unmanned.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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Amazon is sending mixed signals about what it wants.

In its request for proposals (pdf) to find a location for its second North American headquarters, it placed among its core preferences “access to mass transit.”

“Please also include transit and transportation options for commuting employees living in the region,” it elaborated. “For each proposed site in your region, identify all transit options, including bike lanes and pedestrian access to the site(s). Also, list the ranking of traffic congestion for your community and/or region during peak commuting times.”

The request made a good show of promoting walkability and public transportation and pleased city lovers with Amazon’s thoughtfulness.

But the list the tech giant released of its final 20 HQ2 contenders last week (Jan. 18) reveals a completely different set of priorities. Of the 17 metro areas that make up the list, fewer than half are actual transit-and-walking hubs, according to a Brookings analysis. Many also top the list of most congested cities, based on data collected by traffic analytics company INRIX.

It’s worth considering the implications since Amazon plans to inject 50,000 employees into the daily commuting mix of HQ2’s host city. Either Amazon is being flippant about the consequences, or it anticipates the development of new transit. “Transportation, relative to Amazon’s other preferences, is easier to change post hoc,” says Brookings analyst Adie Tomer. That could be why the company seems to have prioritized other assets that are harder to change—a deep pool of high-skilled labor, the presence of advanced industries, and strong anchor institutions.

But if Amazon’s relationship with Seattle is any indication, the future HQ2 winner should be concerned. As much as the tech giant has tried to fund major transit expansions, its interns still take over the buses every summer and car commuters have suffered increasingly soul-crushing traffic. The hope is, at least, that Amazon will handle things better the second time around.