Monday, November 15, 2004

Driving local economies--Are commuters taking their business outside the county?

Driving local economies--Are commuters taking their business outside the county?

By Matthew Bunk

FAIRFIELD - As more than 40 percent of workers in Solano County leave every day to work in various hubs across Northern California, it raises the question: How much money made by Solano residents is spent elsewhere as a direct result of commuting?

With an estimated 14 million people working in a community other than where they live, commuting clearly impacts local economies all across California. From individual car repairs to the added road congestion that delays the shipment of goods, commuting has long burdened Californian residents and businesses.

The wasted time and fuel costs state residents roughly $20.7 billion annually, according to the California Commuters Alliance. And that doesn't include a bigger, intangible cost.

"Consider the fact that 75 percent of freight in the state is transported by truck and it becomes clear that the true economic impact of congestion is incalculable," the alliance stated on its Web site.

But in the fight among business communities to lure consumer spending, it appears that places with a high number of resident commuters might leak money via commuter spending to the places with most of the jobs.

In interviews with more than a dozen people who travel outside the county to their jobs, the Daily Republic found that they all spend some money while away. Some spend more, some less - but no matter how it stacks up, money trickles out when workers have to commute.

"When I first moved here, I spent almost all of my money in San Francisco," said Rita Hobson, a Suisun City resident who works as a bus driver in San Francisco. "Now it varies for me. But if I need to go shopping and the store is right there, then I'll do it before I go home."

Solano County's mobile workforce

The question of whether bedroom communities lose out becomes even more relevant in Solano County, which has the lowest percentage of residents who live and work inside the county, according to U.S. Census figures. And historical census data show the situation has gotten worse.

From 1990 to 2000, the percentage of Solano County's workforce living and working in the county decreased slightly, while the percentage of the workforce commuting out increased from 39 percent to 43 percent.

Compared with peers in the Bay Area, Solano County also stands out because its traveling workforce tallies more miles on an average day en route than any of the other eight counties in a region long known as a home to commuters, according to Rideshare, a nonprofit that compiles annual commuter statistics.

This added time on the road increases the potential for spending away from home.

"If I've got a long drive home, I'll sometimes get fast food, a Jamba Juice or coffee," Hobson said.

Hobson and other commuters spend 15-20 percent of their income outside of the community as a direct result of their commutes, they said.

"Lunch three times a week in San Ramon," said Alisha Marshall, a Solano County resident and engineer for SBC Communications in San Ramon. "I spend maybe 20 percent outside of my community - very little because all I want to do after work is go home."

Under the academic radar?

The issue of economic impact of commuters has received very little attention from university academics and government economists. The lack of information on the subject is ironic because researchers otherwise are enamored with tracking commuter behaviors.

Past studies provided insight into where commuters work, what types of jobs they hold, how they get to work, their impact on roads, as well as what they do to entertain themselves on the ride to work. But there's an information void when it comes to consumer spending patterns.

Economists at the University of California, Davis, and their counterparts at Berkeley, haven't ever seen a study on the economic impacts of commuters on local economies.

"I'm not aware of any data like that," said Patricia Mokhtarian, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.

Several professors agreed, however, such a study could be valuable for communities such as Fairfield, which provide housing for business centers in nearby metro areas. But as it turns out, the most sensible way to find out the impacts would be to ask commuters, said John Landis, professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley.

"I would say that, outside of a few destinations such as downtown San Francisco that have tried to capture that kind of mid-day spending, most haven't had much luck in doing so," Landis said. "But I haven't seen many studies on that."

What does it mean?

Fairfield economic developers say it's good to be a mainly residential community getting housing overflow from areas such as San Francisco because a greater number of residents widens the base of businesses that might consider moving here. It also provides a cheap labor force because people would rather work at home if they could find a job that fit their needs.

Fairfield benefits from its role as a home to those who work around the Bay Area, said Karl Dumas, a city economic development specialist. And that dynamic won't change anytime soon, he said.

"There will continue to be an imbalance of jobs and housing in the neighboring metro areas," Dumas said, "and our area will be looked upon to help solve the housing part of the equation."

Commuters don't especially like to hear those kinds of statements from city officials responsible for business recruitment.

"First of all, we go outside the county to work because there's nothing here to do," said Michael Hunt, a Fairfield resident who works at the airport in San Francisco. "A lot of people spend a lot of money outside the county because there's no work here."

Not so fast, said Mike Ammann, director of the Solano Economic Development Corp. It all comes down to perspective, he said.

"There's always a yin and a yang," Ammann said. "The reason people commute is to get a higher income, and that comes back to this community."

Not only that, Ammann said, but some people commute to Solano County. So, in theory, they offset in a limited way the amount of money spent by commuters going out, he said.

According to the census, 24,155 Bay Area workers commuted to Solano County in 2000, while 75,340 commuted out. Using those figures, along with an average worker's salary of $35,000 and the 20 percent commuters say they spend away from home, Solano County businesses might be giving up as much as $358.3 million annually.

If even only somewhat accurate, that kind of loss in consumer spending could disrupt the business structure of a city, said Cynthia Solorio, a labor market analyst for the state Employment Development Department. But Solorio, too, hadn't seen any studies on the matter and questioned whether commuters actually spend that much during the workday.

"People are more likely to shop out of their local area when buying something like a car," she said. "But not so much for groceries and things like that. Usually they do most spending close to home."

One big expenditure for commuters - and one they say has to be done locally - is car repairs. It seems Fairfield has more auto repair shops than normal, said Hunt, who estimates his annual spending on transportation at roughly $5,000.

"I know for a fact that commuters spend way more money on car repairs, so that's one type of business that isn't hurt by commuter spending."

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or

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