Driving for Dollars: Commuting to Work in Northwest Oregon

by Erik Knoder

June 8, 2020

There has been a slow increase over time in workers commuting outside of their county of residence in Northwest Oregon, although the share of workers doing so fluctuates with the economy. The first chart below shows the share of working residents who commute away from their home county to go to work.
Columbia County, obviously, has a much higher share of residents who commute. The most popular destinations are adjacent counties in the Portland metro area. The remaining four counties have fairly similar shares of residents who commute out of the county. As with Columbia County, nearby counties are usually common destinations for work. One frequent destination for that might surprise readers is Multnomah County. It is a reasonable destination for nearby Columbia County residents, but would many Lincoln County residents commute that far? Some might, but another possible explanation is that the commuting-to-work data depend in part on where the employees’ paychecks are issued, which might be at a company’s headquarters but not where the employees’ actual worksite is.

Another trend evident from the chart is that commuting from most counties increased noticeably during the recovery from the Great Recession, then declined as the expansion took hold and the labor market tightened. This trend supports the notion that workers will commute more when necessary to get a job, but prefer not to.

The flipside of looking at where residents work is to look at where workers reside. The chart below shows the share of each county’s workers who commute in from other counties. Benton County has the highest share of its workers commuting in, followed by Columbia County with the second highest share. The remaining three counties have fairly similar shares of workers who commute in for jobs.
Since this chart is showing the same type of behavior, commuting to work, the trends are similar to the first chart: a small increase over time and more commuting during the recovery after the Great Recession. What is different are the shares of commuters in each county.

Aside from commuting out of necessity to simply find a job, workers may also commute for a better job. The Census data also provide some detail on wage groups for the five counties. On average a larger share of residents who commuted out of their home county were in the high-wage category than residents who worked in their home county. In 2017, 42.5 percent of residents who commuted out to another county made more than $3,333 per month versus only 38.4 percent of residents who worked in their home county.

There are probably many factors that influence people’s decisions to commute outside their home county to work. From the sharp increase during the recovery from recession it seems likely that a scarcity of jobs is an important one. As jobs became more plentiful around 2015 commuting declined again. Higher wages also provide an incentive for commuting. One thing that doesn’t seem important is the price of gasoline. Gasoline prices increased sharply from 2009 to 2012 while commuting also increased, and prices decreased sharply from 2014 to 2016 while commuting decreased.

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