Nelson and Chamber board chair Paige Zinn at Tuesday’s presentation. Photo by Donn Young, courtesy Orange County Visitors Bureau.
CHAPEL HILL – Town and county officials have talked for years about making Orange County a place where people can “live, work and play” all in one location—but despite the effort, recent data show we’re still more of a bedroom community than county planners would like.
“Every morning 43,000 people wake up outside of Orange County and drive in, and every morning 39,000 wake up in Orange County and drive out–and only 21,000 people wake up and work in Orange County,” says Aaron Nelson, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce.
In all, about two-thirds of those who work in Orange County live outside the county lines—and about two-thirds of Orange County residents leave the county to work. Those percentages have been steadily increasing for at least a decade—and Nelson says it’s putting a strain on the roads.
“The transportation planners should be really concerned,” says Nelson. “The challenge is (that) we have one of the best transit systems in the nation, but these people live outside that transit service area. They’re (using) park-and-ride lots, they’re driving in from all sorts of other places.”
The trend even extends to municipal employees: as of 2010, only 22 percent of those who work for the Town of Chapel Hill actually live in the Town of Chapel Hill. (That’s down from 41 percent in 1995.)
The most obvious would-be explanation for all the migration is simple economics: the cost of living in Orange County is high, so presumably people with low-paying jobs in Orange County have to live elsewhere, while residents of the county commute to higher-paying jobs in other parts of the Triangle. Nelson says that’s what he thought too—but the numbers actually say otherwise.
“Now, I had believed–and had even used the rhetorical ‘hey, it’s BMW out and Oldsmobile in’–that we had been importing our unskilled and semi-skilled labor and we were sending out our white-collar workers in order to work in the (Research Triangle) Park,” he says. “(But) that is not what is happening.”
In fact—contrary to popular belief—the number of individuals commuting into town for jobs paying more than $40,000 is nearly identical to the number of individuals commuting out of town for jobs paying more than $40,000. And the same is also true for jobs paying between $15,000 and $40,000, as well as jobs paying less than $15,000.
“So the disconnect between worker and work opportunity is not about wage,” Nelson concludes. “Some of it’s just about work opportunity. Adding work opportunity in any of these ranges will lower the commute.”
Interestingly, despite the increase in the percentage of people who drive into and out of Orange County for work, the average commute time has remained fairly steady for the last five years: Orange County residents in 2011 spent an average of 21.9 minutes to get to work—up only slightly from 21.4 minutes in 2007. (The average American’s commute is 25.4 minutes.)
Nelson delivered these numbers on Tuesday at the Friday Center, as part of his annual State of the Community report. You can see the whole presentation at this link.