For years, local policymakers have been trying to create opportunities for people who live in Orange County to work in Orange County – and for people who work in Orange County to live here too.
But every day, thousands of Orange County residents get in their cars and drive to work somewhere else – and thousands of people who live somewhere else get in their cars and drive to work here.
“40,000 people drive into Orange County every morning, 37,800 people drive out of Orange County every morning – and (only) 19,000 folks wake up and work in Orange County,” says Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson.
And he adds that the number of people both living and working in Orange County has been trending downward for more than a decade. “45 percent of (Orange County residents) in 2002 lived here and worked here,” he says. “That’s down now to 34 percent.”
Among other things, Nelson says, this poses a challenge for our transit plan.
“We’ve designed an entire transit system to move people within our community,” he says. “If we’re more regionally employed, what is that going to mean for our transportation solutions?”
And while we often assume that people who commute into Orange County do so because they can’t afford to live here, Nelson says that may actually not be the case.
“We (think) we’re exporting high-wage white-collar workers and importing unskilled, semi-skilled work – but it’s not true,” he says. “19,000 people drive out for a job that pays $40,000 or more – and 19,500 people drive in for a job that pays $40,000 or more. We have 6,800 people driving out for a job that pays less than $15,000 – and we have almost the exact same number of people driving in (for similar-paying jobs).
“When we look at these as percentages, they’re really – shockingly – the same.”
What that means, Nelson says, is that addressing this issue may not be simply a matter of building more low-cost housing – it might also be about making connections.
“We must better connect local workers with local work opportunity, and that will dramatically change our in- and out-commute,” he says. “If we can specifically try to employ folks that live in our market, that will have great positive change – for the environment, for the lack of civic participation that happens when we commute, and the roads that we have to build and the transit system.”
And Nelson says it’s especially important to start making those connections now – because this trend, fewer and fewer people living and working in Orange County, is especially pronounced among residents under 30.
“There are 600 fewer young people – 15 percent fewer young people – living and working in our community over a two-year period,” he says. “That’s a trend I do not like.”
Nelson made those comments last month while delivering his annual State of the Community report.