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More Working from Home, But Longer Commutes For Those Who Don’t: An Update to Cross-County Commuting Patterns Research

How long do people commute for? Do people work where they live and vice-versa? In a two-part blog series, we seek to answer these questions using recent Census data.

Author: Chi Wong

In years past, LEAD has talked about changing patterns towards increased cross-county commuting, with an update using 2017 data, and contrasted commuting data between two US Census Bureau products: the American Community Survey (ACS) and Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Origin-Destination Employment Statistics (LODES). This blog continues previous research with the November 2023 release of 2021 LODES data and ACS 1-year estimates spanning from 2005 to 2022.

Just how much did COVID impact commuting?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, working conditions have changed dramatically since the last time we performed this analysis in 2020. The lockdown and business closures, lack of widespread public access to a vaccine in 2020, and widespread reliance on remote work for a significant portion of 2021 altered how and where people work – at least temporarily. While this obviously suggests an increase in the number of workers working from home, the extent of this difference may be surprising: according to ACS data, the level rose from 331,256 in 2019 to reach 917,620 in 2021. In percentage terms, we jumped from 6% of North Carolina’s working population teleworking in 2019 to 19% in 2021 and 17% in 2022. To put it into perspective, we saw a larger level and percentage point change from 2019 to 2021 than we did from 2005 (the start of the data) to 2019.

Number of North Carolinians working from home, 2005 to 2022

But is this change here to stay? The near-term data suggests that at the very least, we are seeing a slower return to pre-COVID commuting patterns. We saw only a small decline in both the level and percentage of telecommuters in North Carolina from 2021 to 2022. With the tension between a tight labor market and companies’ calls to return to the office, it will be interesting to see whether this trend holds.

By and large, North Carolina workers still live and work in different counties.

Despite the drastic increase in working from home, commuting time continues to gradually trend upwards. Average commuting time for North Carolina workers fell slightly from a series-wide peak of 25.7 minutes in 2019 to 24.5 minutes in 2021 likely due to COVID, but returned to 25.1 minutes in 2022, the second highest average commuting time in the data. This is likely connected to the growth of suburbs and exurbs and the continued increase in cross-county commuting, a trend that we have observed since the start of the data. Below shows the latest display of the number of counties where more than half the residents work and live in the same county.

Number of North Carolina counties where 50% or more of the residents live and work in the same county, 2003 to 2021

As the data shows, there are only 10 counties where over half of the residents live and work in the same county, an all-time low. Almost all[1] of these counties have been in this group for every year since 2002. This can hardly be viewed as surprising. Except for Dare and Watauga County, these counties are among the largest labor markets in North Carolina. As for those two counties, the likely explanation is geography. Their position on the extremities of North Carolina farther away from major transportation corridors and larger regional labor markets likely make it more difficult for workers to commute.

List of NC counties with 50% or more of residents living and working in the same county, 2021

We see evidence in the data that while working from home has become more popular, there are also more counties that have a large share of commuters and spend more time doing so. This continues the trend of regional labor markets extending beyond county lines and highlights the need to consider commuting for policymakers, labor market specialists, and economic developers. In the next blog, we’ll take a more specific look at which counties have seen the largest changes in within-area work.


[1] The lone exception is Watauga County, which dropped out of the grouping in 2011, but rejoined in 2015.

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