The Lehigh Valley has around 400,000 daily commuters traveling to jobs in and around the region.
Where they are going and where they are coming from speaks volumes on the health of the regional economy. Based on statistics recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau and compiled by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, they’re saying generally good things.
The statistics may also offer clues to local business leaders on how to best recruit workers and guide future development.
“We have a tremendous amount of people travelling in and out of the Lehigh Valley for work. It’s good for us,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.
IN AND OUT
Based on December 2018 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, 198,672 workers live and work in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
At the same time, more than 200,000 commuters travel into or out of the Lehigh Valley to reach their jobs.
The good news is that the number of people commuting to the Lehigh Valley from somewhere else – 106,226 – is higher than the number of people leaving the Lehigh Valley for work: 97,402.
And the number of workers traveling into the Lehigh Valley is growing
In 2010 the U.S. Census reported 88,764 people commuted into the Lehigh Valley from outside the area, meaning the 2018 figure represents a nearly 10 percent increase.
The number of people working and living in the Lehigh Valley is also higher, up from 186,497 in 2010. That’s mostly attributable to population growth over that time.
The number of people leaving the Lehigh Valley to go work in other areas was slightly lower: It was 103,667 in 2010, meaning more people are leaving the area now than before.
WHERE THE JOBS ARE
So where are all these people coming and going from?
If you asked people to name the biggest draw for Lehigh Valley commuters many would say New York City, the metropolitan behemoth to the east, which is about to gain thousands of jobs from Amazon. But they’d be wrong.
While significant for a single city, the Big Apple actually attracts only a couple thousand commuters from Lehigh and Northampton counties. The bulk of the commuters from eastern Pennsylvania to New York City live in the Monroe County area, according to other published reports.
Lehigh and Northampton commuters stick slightly closer to home.
Berks, Montgomery and Bucks counties attract the highest amount of Lehigh County workers.
Those three counties also send a lot of people into the Lehigh Valley, with others coming from Carbon and Monroe counties.
So what makes people work closer to home versus finding their employment in far-away fields?
Cunningham said it’s a pretty simple formula of pay versus pain.
MONEY VERSUS TIME
The average commute for a resident of Lehigh and Northampton counties is 26 minutes, according to the planning commission, slightly less than in nearby metropolitan areas.
Commutes for those living in the Philadelphia area, for example, average 33 minutes.
Often, when people commute to jobs farther from their home, higher salaries are the main draw.
Commuters must often decide whether a longer commute is worth the salary they seek.
Their answers offer valuable data to employers, Cunningham said. Research into commuting patterns and wages can show what would be enough to entice people.
If employers can figure average salaries in an area, they may be able to determine how much money they would need to entice the right workers to make a longer commute.
Cunningham gave the example of a pharmaceutical company. Before opening a new office in a new location, the company could research the commuting patterns of existing pharmaceutical workers.
The company might find a pool of workers already living near where it wants to build but commuting to jobs farther away. Those workers might be tempted to take pharmaceutical jobs closer to home, Cunningham said.
WHERE THE WORKERS ARE
Knowing where people live and work and how long they travel between the two is also important information for other industries, said Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
“Wherever you see large movements of people, you’re going to see development in between,” Bradley said.
She said housing and retail will likely be developed along commuter routes that are growing in popularity.
That makes knowing where people are commuting to and from important information for developers.
But there also are downsides.
“The transportation system is a series of veins and arteries,” said Bradley. And like veins and arteries they can get clogged.
Traffic delays can cause longer commutes or even gridlock. Picture Route 22 between Whitehall and Bethlehem during rush hour, where one accident can mean thousands of people late for work.
If people can’t get to their jobs, or it takes too long to get there, it makes those jobs less attractive to workers and that impacts the economy.
That’s why it’s so important to keep track of where people are commuting to so the proper infrastructure and technology is in place to keep traffic moving, Bradley said.
That can lead to major shifts in traffic access, such as the construction of the Chrin Interchange in Northampton County in 2015, which eased traffic flow and encouraged development in the area surrounding it.
Or she said, it can be as simple as utilizing what has become increasingly affordable smart traffic signalization to better regulate the flow of traffic through traffic pattern analysis and extended greens during peak travel times to keep to keep those commuters getting to where they need to go.