The case for not commuting and making the Inland Empire your place for work

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In July 2007, to great expectation and fanfare, the expansion of the 210 Freeway was finally completed. Some of us were roller blading or bicycling on it the day before it opened close to Claremont, realizing how small inclines, not noticeable driving in a car, can take you out of breath if you have to skate or peddle. Records from the day cite two area residents stating, “It is wonderful that we can connect with faraway places” and “It is all very exciting. It will help the economy around here and get businesses running.” More than 15 years later, what do we know about the region? Have these changes materialized?

With the 210 expansion, the Inland Empire is now connected to San Diego via the 15 Freeway (including the recently opened Express Lanes), connected to Orange County via the 91 Freeway (whose express lanes were opened in 1995 and they were the first toll road in the U.S.), to Downtown Los Angeles via the 60 and 10 freeways (where express lanes are about to open soon), and to Pasadena and the Foothill communities via the 210. Ours is a well-connected area with 320,000 workers commuting daily to mostly coastal counties. In contrast to the large number of workers we “export,” we “import” very few workers. This becomes obvious if you drive “in the opposite direction” during rush hour.

A television cameraman awaits the opening of the completed 210 Freeway in Rialto in this AP file photo from July 24, 2007. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The infrastructure that connects the Inland Empire to the rest of Southern California has transformed the area and will continue to do so. During the last 15 years, since the 210 Freeway expansion was completed, the population of the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan area has increased by more than 15%, doubling the national growth. This explains why the Inland Empire has become the 12th  largest Metropolitan Statistical Area in the U.S. recently, passing the San Francisco MSA, and being just 200,000 residents behind the 11th largest, Boston-Cambridge (Phoenix next after this). The 650,000 new IE residents are equivalent to a middle-sized city, such as Syracuse, New York, or Winston-Salem, North Carolina. However, not all of these new residents commute into neighboring counties. The total number of commuters has remained constant during the last 15 years.

If you drive these freeways daily, you might be amazed by all the new communities that have risen over the last 15 years. There are new communities with different housing amenities, from Upland and Montclair to Redlands (and beyond). New residents will change the regional demand for public goods. If our newest neighbors are more likely to have children, they will demand quality schools and parks. In contrast, if they are retired or close to retirement, they will demand health services and amenities. Similarly, residents who commute to other counties for work will demand amenities different from those who live and work here.

Policymakers must then answer the question as to who the commuters are, and whether they are systematically different from workers who live and work in the area. First, the majority of the commuters are men, only 1 out of 3 commuters is a woman. Commuters are also younger, 35% of all workers who work in the area are 55 years or older, and 30% of workers who commute are 55 years or older. Also, commuters are more likely to hold a college degree or to have attended college, 28% of commuters have attended college, and only 24% of non-commuters have attended college. But the biggest difference is in earnings: commuters earn 30% more than workers who live and work in the IE. That is, on average, commuters earn more than $18,000 a year more than non-commuters. Clearly commuters have higher human capital than non-commuters and require extra income to compensate for the daily commute. These differences suggest that the demand for public goods differs, and policymakers will struggle to satisfy both constituencies. Since no one gets satisfaction from commuting, it is also clear that these commuters would be willing to give up some of the extra income if they could find jobs in the Inland Empire that were better paying and would be more in line with their qualifications. The current debate around the viability of the logistics industry in the area is one example, as the costs and benefits are distributed asymmetrically.

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