A Whole Lot of Commuting Going On

Source: Governing Magazine

Source: Governing Magazine (Click for more legible image.)

The Governing magazine blog has published some fascinating U.S. census data on commuting patterns in the U.S., and though the author did not pick up on this particular angle, the data shows Virginia as a real outlier.

The chart above, extracted from the census data, shows Virginia counties with populations of 60,000 or more. There are 796 such counties in the United States. Arlington County ranks at the very top of the list, higher even than Washington, D.C., as measured by the percentage of the county workforce that commutes from outside the country. York County, Va., ranks No. 4 in the country — just behind New York County, N.Y. Five other Virginia counties make the Top 50. And Montgomery County (where the town of Blacksburg is located), the bottom-listed county in Virginia, still makes it into the top half for all U.S. counties.

This is remarkable: Virginia’s most populous counties appear to lead the nation in the extent to which workers drive to work from other jurisdictions.

What does it mean? I’m not sure. The phenomenon is conceivably an artifact of the fact that Virginia is the only state in the country in which cities and counties are separate jurisdictional entities, not overlapping entities — although I cannot readily see how that would make any difference.

Another possibility is that there is an extraordinary amount of sprawl going on — Arlington residents commuting to D.C.; Fairfax residents commuting to Arlington; Loudoun and Prince William residents commuting to Fairfax; and residents of outlying counties commuting to Loudoun and Prince William.

Conversely, it’s conceivable (though, based on anecdotal observation, not likely) that a tremendous amount of reverse commuting occurring.

If anyone has any thoughts as to what is going on please submit your observations in the comments. (Hat tip: Rob Whitfield.)


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7 responses to “A Whole Lot of Commuting Going On

  1. you’ve changed some of the column titles – in a way that I think have made it less easy to understand.

    the original table had

    1. – total who resides in the country and works in the county
    2. – the number who live outside the county but work in the county

    so for Spotsylvania :

    the total who live and work in the county is : 20,799
    the total who live outside and commute to the county are: 12,952

    but here’s what’s NOT in the table: the number who live in the county but commute to jobs outside the county

    AND – the number who reside in county and commute more than 40 miles outside the county.

    commuting between counties on the order of 10-20 miles is not a big deal in modern society that is increasingly more mobile ..

    but commuting form where you live to a job 40 or more miles away is different.

    so the chart column not present in the original chart nor Bacons version is:

    total number of people who reside in county but commute outside of country

    ..and of that number, how many commute more than 40 miles outside of county.

    that would, in my mind, better characterize – “sprawl”.

    people commuting from Arlington to Tysons is _not_ sprawl commuting, for instance…

  2. Jim:

    I think you are suffering from the normal curve fallacy. Virginia has the 49th mean county size. Only the former part of Virginia now known as Kentucky has a smaller average county size. Small average county size = more counties per given geographic area. More counties per given geographic area = more potential cross-county commuting.


    Arlington is a county in name only. It is considerably smaller and more densely populated than the “city” of Richmond. In any other state, Arlington would be a city within Fairfax County as would Alexandria.

    Virginia is a freak. Never believe that anything in Virginia can be compared to the same thing in other states.

    I also wonder why the independent counties wouldn’t skew the results. If I commute from Fairfax City to Fairfax County I came from outside Fairfax County to work. In any other state, Fairfax City would be in Fairfax County and my commute would be intra-county.

    Then there is some geographic illiteracy going on. Washington, DC is not a county.

  3. a better statistic would be average commute distance.

    in the beltway areas of most urbanized regions, the average commute of places in and around the beltway is likely to be somewhat related to the diameter of the beltway.

    but the commute distance of places outside the beltway is going to be a different, probably a larger number.

    In some places, the distance outward from the beltway is not going to be much further than the diameter of the beltway.

    In other places, commutes outside the beltway could be quite long – what is catagorized as long-distance commuters.


    so 1.89% of full-time workers (I think… )… are classified as “mega-commuters” in the Wash/DC/Md area.

    depending on who you reference there is about 9 million in population and 3 million jobs. 2% of 3million = 60,000 commuters. That sounds low given the fact that I-95 south of DC by itself has over 200K cars on it most days and if you drop down south to below the Fredericksburg area – there are about 100K or less cars on I-95 most days.

  4. The Independent Cities are certainly playing a part, the top 20 smallest county-like subdivisions in the U.S. are all independent cities in Virginia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_counties_and_cities_in_Virginia. The cities’ small size is helping skew the commuting data for some of the counties, in York County’s case it borders 4 different independent cities. Going through the list, only 3 of the Virginia counties don’t border at least one independent city.

  5. did a little poking around with the community survey data and I found this for Spotsylvania:

    Population 16 years and over-Percent in labor force 72.2

    Civilian labor force-Percent unemployed 3.2

    Mean travel time to work (minutes) 37.1

    Percent worked outside county of residence: 63.8


    NOTE the travel time 37.1 is a MEAN – i.e. 1/2 have a LONGER commute time

    and NOTE the percent who work outside the county – 63.8%

    2/3 of employed that live in the county – work outside the county and half have longer commute times than 37.1 minutes.

    Stafford county numbers are similar except that 71% commute outside of the county to work – interestingly enough – mean commute is 37.7 minutes.

    the two counties lie about 40-50 miles south of the I-495 beltway in the DC/MD/Va MSA and typify exurbia.

    to put this in more perspective – there are about 2 million people living in NoVa and probably 1.4 -1.6 million work in the region and work I-495 pretty hard every day at rush hour.

    but I-95 south is totally clogged during the same commute hours by about 50,000 commuters coming primarily from Spotsylvania and Stafford, that 5% of the NoVa workforce, virtually gridlocks I-95 as well as contributing to the load on I-495.

    I’m not assigning “blame” here – but pointing out the impacts of exurban commuting. Each person and their family has to make decisions about job and home but living far from work does have consequences for all commuters as well as highway infrastructure and capacity and the costs to improve it.

  6. something else worth reading:

    ” Latest Census Data Reveal Region’s Commuters Shifting Away from Solo Driving, but Slowly”

    Commuters in the Washington region have been shifting — slowly — away from driving alone as their primary method of getting to and from work, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, which was analyzed recently by the Transportation Planning Board.


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