Cross County Car Commuting Climbing?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Jeff Rosenthal

Some of us work nearby where we live, but others travel some distance to get to work every day.  Though we’re probably not travelling both ways uphill like our grandparents, commutes seem longer and perhaps further as time goes on.  In 2016, the mean travel time to work for North Carolina residents was 24.4 minutes.  This has inched up from only 23.3 minutes in 2005.*

This blog post will further examine this increase using data from the 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) (2012-2016) released this month and the LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Statistics (LODES) data (2015) released in September.**

Time for Commuting

Latest Snapshot

Commuting times across North Carolina vary from county to county. 


Gates County has the longest mean commute from 2012-2016 at 36.7 minutes followed by other northeastern counties like Currituck (36.0) and Camden (34.0), and Perquimans (30.1).  The other longest commutes come from counties peripheral to the Triangle (Caswell (32.2), Franklin (31.2), Person (30.4), Johnston (29.4), and Harnett (29.0)) and Charlotte (Lincoln (29.8), Union (29.5)).

Jackson County has the shortest mean commute at 19.3 minutes followed by Dare County at 19.4 minutes.  Most of the other shorter commute counties are in the west, including Swain (19.6), Watauga (19.8), Buncombe (20.2), and Clay (20.2), with a few other eastern counties (Pitt (20.1), New Hanover (20.4), Wilson (20.5), and Cumberland (20.8)) rounding out the shortest 10.

Change Over Time

As mentioned above, the ACS showed that the mean travel time to work for North Carolina residents inched up over time.  But did it inch up equally across the state?

When we compare the 2005-2009 time period with the most recent time period (2012-2016), we also see the mean time commuting in North Carolina increase from 23.2 minutes to 24.1 minutes.

Counties with the largest changes include:


2005-2009 mean commute (minutes)

Margin of Error

2012-2016 mean commute (minutes)

Margin of Error

































All significant changes in average commuting are listed in the below chart and map.  We find only one county with a shorter commute time from 2012-2016 than 2005-2009 (Clay), and 32 with longer commute times.



 The charts and data show that despite the largest change being in Graham County, most of the increases in mean commute time occurred in the central and eastern parts of the state.

 Commuting Direction

Two years ago, the LEAD Feed posted an analysis of commuting that found fewer North Carolina counties had a majority of workers who lived and worked in the same county in 2013 than in 2003.  We found that the number of NC counties where 50% or more of the residents live and work in their home county (among those that have private, primary jobs) had dropped from 47 counties in 2003 to 15 in 2011, and 14 to 2013. 

We’ve decided to update this analysis with the LODES data released at the end of September.  The LODES data results from a partnership between federal and state entities, and this underlies the useful Census Bureau’s OnTheMap application.

So, did the number continue to drop in 2015? 

No.  In fact, it slightly increased to 17.

Below is the list of counties from 2015.  New additions to the list from 2013 are in bold.  Note that each of the 14 counties that had over 50% in 2013 also had over 50% in 2015.

·         ·      Buncombe

·         Carteret

·         Catawba

·         Craven

·         ·      Cumberland

·         Dare

·         Durham

·         Forsyth

·         ·      Guilford

·         Macon

·         Mecklenburg

·         Moore

·         ·      New Hanover

·         Onslow

·         Pitt

·         Wake

·     ·      Watauga




What's Going On?

As noted in the previous blog post using LODES, county size, as well as geography and transportation corridors play a part in commuting patterns.

Labor force and employment size play a role.  Each of the 7 most highly populated counties in North Carolina have a majority of their workers reporting to work in the same county (Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland, Durham, and Buncombe).***  However, several of these (Mecklenburg, Wake, Forsyth) also see longer commutes, and even if the commuting times haven’t changed, several counties in these labor market orbits have among the longest mean commuting times in the state.

The other counties that have most of their resident workers work in their county are often regional employment centers that attract workers from outside counties as well as retain their own workers.  Several of these also saw increased commute times for their residents (Catawba, Craven, Onslow).

Finally, the transportation corridors play a role for the long commutes for several northeastern counties, whose residents may often commute up to Virginia Beach and Norfolk within the larger Metropolitan Statistical Area (Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC).


This reflects the national trend of longer commute times that have inched up nation-wide over the same time period from 25.1 minutes in 2005 to 26.6 minutes in 2016.*  While mean commute time increased across the state, it increased most  in Central and Eastern North Carolina.  Today, people travel across county lines for work more than ten years ago, and while this trend appears to have flattened or even made some very slight movement towards reversal, it doesn’t look like it will reverse itself quickly.  This speaks to importance of considering regional labor markets beyond county lines.  It will be interesting to see what the impacts of these trends portend given pros and cons to increased commuting times.**** 

*Mean travel time to work for the state and national estimates taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates for each year listed.

**For a useful short primer on differences between American Community Survey and LODES commuting data, visit this LEAD Feed Article.

***Population data from the NC Office of State Budget and Management’s 2016 County Population Estimates.

****There is a lot of literature associated with commuting, but a really nice overview of the pros and cons with an international view is:

Lyons, Glenn & Kiron Chatterjee.  2008.  “A Human Perspective on the Daily Commute: Costs, Benefits and Trade-offs.”  Transport Reviews 28(2): 181-198.