The Metropolitanization of Virginia

1990 commuting patterns. The darker the color, the longer the average commute.
1990 commuting patterns. The darker the color, the longer the average commute. Source: StatChat

by James A. Bacon

A couple of weeks ago, three guys came rolling through my neighborhood in a heavy pickup truck and pitched me on cutting down some dead limbs and trees in my back yard. They lived in Rappahannock County, they said; they’d spent three hours driving to Richmond looking for work and when they finished with us would spend three hours driving home. Their routine, they said, was to hit the sack, get some sleep, and then get up early in the morning and repeat the ordeal.

The story is testimony to many things, including the lengths to which some people will go to earning a living. But it is also an example of how the workforce in lightly populated “rural” counties, where inhabitants once farmed or worked in light manufacturing, is getting sucked into the orbit of Virginia’s larger metropolitan regions.

2014 commuting patterns.
2014 commuting patterns.

Many commentators on urban affairs, myself included, have tended to view the steady geographic expansion of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) as a consequence of so-called “suburban sprawl,” the pattern of low-density, hop-scotch development — urban areas pushing outward. And that remains the dominant explanation for the ever-expanding size of our MSAs. But Hamilton Lombard, writing in the StatChat blog, notes that there’s more to the story:

Workers in “rural” counties are commuting to metropolitan areas in search of work: “Agricultural employment declined in nearly every rural U.S. county, while manufacturing jobs in most small towns also began to disappear by the 1980s. The result of these two trends has been that residents in most rural counties have grown more dependent on nearby cities for jobs. …  In many rural counties … the proportion of workers commuting to a nearby city has risen above a quarter of all workers, causing counties to become part of another city’s metropolitan area.

In Virginia, the portion of commuters who traveled over an hour each way to work rose from 6.5 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2014. But in rural areas that are within commuting distance of city centers, the percent of residents who drove over 60 minutes to get to work often doubled or tripled in the same period. In some counties on the edges of large metro areas, such as Warren County, Virginia, located 70 miles west of Washington DC, it is common for between a quarter and a third of residents to commute more than an hour to get to work.

As an example, Lombard points to Floyd County, which was incorporated into the Blacksburg MSA in 2013. The 20th century saw the transformation of Floyd’s economic base from agriculture to manufacturing, and then the hollowing out of manufacturing. But the growth of Virginia Tech and Radford Universities created jobs for Floyd residents willing to make the commute. As a bedroom community, Floyd’s population has rebounded to levels last seen in 1900, .

Given this analysis, the hollowing out of Virginia’s “rural” economy is even worse than it appears from traditional unemployment figures. An increasing number of Virginians outside the metropolitan areas stay employed by commuting long distances to wherever they can find jobs.

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4 responses to “The Metropolitanization of Virginia”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    there are two kinds of commuters.

    the first kind are those that have higher level education and regular jobs in the urban area but commute to the suburbs for more house for the money and decent schools.

    the second kind are those with minimal education who already live outside the urban area – that commute to where lower level skill or tradesmen jobs exist or where they pay more.

    the former typically live in 300-500K upscale homes in gated communities or communities with amenities like walking trails, tennis, pool, HOA , etc.

    the latter live in rural older or double-wide or modest stick-built homes with typically more basic schools with limited college-prep curricula.

    In Spotsylvania – in the upscale neighborhoods – we’ll have DOD scientists or budget analysts then in the fringe rural areas – we’ll have blue-collar and tradesmen types who commute to northern counties as firemen or transit workers, etc…

    we also have the “middle” subdivisions – usually 150-200K homes with no neighborhood amenities.. just 1/4 acre lots .. minimal driveways.. cars and trucks parked on the street, etc.

    In addition – we have about half dozen VRE stations and about a dozen commuter lots… with a crapload of vans and buses now that the express lanes are in operation…

    and a whole lotta “bitching” going on …. over congestion and tolls.. and weekly “incidents” that shut down I-95 …


  2. CrazyJD Avatar

    There are two kinds of rural tree trimmers.

    The first kind is a heroin user.

    The second kind will probably become a heroin user. It’s a nasty business.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    there are tree trimmers and landscapers…

    there are two kinds – white guys and Hispanics

    I could be wrong – but I don’t think the Hispanics are near as much into Heroin.

    what do you think?

  4. Acbar Avatar

    Categories and stereotypes aside, I think there’s a lot of middle ground. The graphic is fascinating and revealing. Life in the suburbs, let alone the exurbs, is tough and full of stress and compromises. Bigger house and room for kids to play, yes; stress because free time is lost to the commute, yes; lack of relationships and sense of community outside the nuclear family due to lack of time to join in community activities, also yes; isolation, loneliness and drug use, also yes. Is this pattern confined to white families with an agricultural/rural upbringing — sadly, no.

    I know families in Mathews County striving to hold onto family places they’ve inherited, a life style they grew up with, but the jobs are in Newport News and Williamsburg and Norfolk. Also there are families that have moved to Mathews to enjoy the outdoors there, who grew up in Newport News or Hampton but have given up on the hassles; but now they face the same stresses of the commuting life. Out in the middle of no-where in Mathews you find — surprise! — commuter parking lots, where people gather to share the toll for the Coleman Bridge. And there’s all sorts of innovative business activity to supplement the commuter income: like, the food truck that brings a farmers market selection of vegetables and baked goods, some from their own backyard and kitchen, from the Valley to NoVa; like the man who makes birdhouses and cruises the streets and markets to sell them.

    This is adaptation to changing circumstances. Your chart helps us see what is changing.

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