Commuters flood into Mecklenburg

An estimated 189,000 commuters come into Mecklenburg County from other counties, a census survey found. Union County sends the most to Mecklenburg, an estimated 39,600 residents.
An estimated 189,000 commuters come into Mecklenburg County from other counties, a census survey found. Union County sends the most to Mecklenburg, an estimated 39,600 residents. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County is growing as a magnet for commuters from the region and around the country, an Observer analysis of new census data shows.

Commuters come from 71 other North Carolina counties and 42 states from Maine to California, according to 2009-13 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Mecklenburg had an estimated 189,000 commuters from other counties, compared with about 146,000 in 2000, a 29 percent increase, an Observer analysis found.

The census asked where people had commuted to in the prior week, responses that could cover their regular job, travel for a convention, the route of a long-term trucker or other variables.

Most commuting involves going to work in a person’s home county.

When Mecklenburg residents are added into the county’s commuting mix, the totals from the most recent survey are about 591,000 commuters, compared with 476,000 in 2000.

Mecklenburg has a national and international footprint, and the commuting patterns reflect that.

Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography

The commuting growth in part reflects job growth following the most recent recession, said Chuck McShane, research director for the Charlotte Chamber.

“Charlotte is a major headquarters city,” he said. “And our business community is nationally and internationally connected. ... You see people coming in from throughout the nation and even internationally to work in Charlotte.”

Union is heaviest

Nowhere in the region is the pull toward Mecklenburg felt more strongly than in Union County, where nearly 40,000 residents crossed the county line for work.

By contrast, about 7,400 Mecklenburg residents work in Union.

Marvin resident Lesslie Durst lives in western Union near the Mecklenburg line.

The physician assistant has commuted to Charlotte for about 15 years, most recently to Ballantyne.

Driving in at 7:30 a.m. isn’t as bad as the 4 p.m. drive home, which can run 30 to 45 minutes.

Durst used to drive to uptown Charlotte, and could sit in traffic for up to 90 minutes if there was an accident or two.

“On those days, I wished I was on public transportation,” said Durst, 36. “And if I was younger and single, I’d probably live in the city.”

Still, she said she puts up with the hassles because she feels Union is a better place to live and raise a family.

Union also had the highest net loss of commuters of any county in the state, according to Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center. That’s the difference between the number of people commuting into a county and the number of county residents working in another county.

Quality of life

Union communities near Mecklenburg attract executives and other Charlotte workers who prefer the lower taxes and quality of life Union offers, said Chris Platé, executive director of Monroe-Union County Economic Development.

Another factor could be Mecklenburg residents getting older and looking to move into a bigger home in a nearby suburb, said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography. So people move, but the job remains in Mecklenburg.

Office development

Platé’s group is working with Union municipalities to identify land that could be developed for offices and other job centers.

“It’s always a reality that Charlotte is an employment center, just like we are a center for more rural areas,” Platé said.

81% of commuters drive to work alone

10% of commuters ride in a car pool

2% of commuters take public transportation

7% of commuters use other travel modes

Outside N.C.

The most out-of-state commuters for Mecklenburg came from the obvious place: South Carolina, which sent an estimated 44,000 workers.

York County, S.C., accounted for 31,900 of those workers, the second most out of all counties behind Union.

Georgia delivered about 1,500 commuters and Virginia an additional 1,200, data show.

Others travel much farther. Fourteen Ohio counties, 13 Michigan counties, nine California counties and a South Dakota county sent workers to Mecklenburg.

“Mecklenburg has a national and international footprint, and the commuting patterns reflect that,” Tippett said.

Then there’s Benton County, Ore., home of Oregon State University. From the Pacific coastal county, about 10 people make the 2,300-mile trip – the longest of any commute to Mecklenburg.

Reverse commute

Mecklenburg residents commuted to 52 different North Carolina counties, 41 states, Washington, D.C., and even Mexico. You could expect employees of the big banks to explain travel to places such as New York and San Francisco, said the chamber’s McShane.

The most common destination for Mecklenburg residents outside of their home county was Cabarrus County, the destination for about 11,400 commuters.

Elsewhere in the region, racing industry ties could be among the reasons that about 80 Cabarrus residents commute to Henry County, Va., home of Martinsville Speedway.

Many solo drivers

The census report also included a look at how people got to work.

It’s an issue of increasing importance in the Charlotte mayor’s race, where candidates have cited the need to deal with a regional approach to transportation.

Four out of 5 people in the Charlotte region drive to work alone.

Ten percent carpooled, 2 percent took public transportation, and 7 percent used other travel modes, such as biking, walking or working from home.

The trends are comparable to statewide figures, although the public transportation rate in the region was nearly double the North Carolina rate.

Stronger than Wake

Finally, Mecklenburg is a more dominant lure for local commuters than Wake County is to its region.

In the Raleigh area, UNC’s Tippett said, job centers are more spread out between three counties rather than concentrated in one county.

That also helps account for Mecklenburg having a higher total number of commuters from within and outside the county than Wake, 591,000 to 482,000.

Database editor Gavin Off contributed.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell