Tri-Cities commute patterns – where do people live and where do they work

The median commute time in the Tri-Cities is just under 30 minutes. But that’s only the Census Bureau’s numbers crunch and doesn’t account for the wreck that has a lane closed on the interstate or looky-loos backing up 11W for two miles as they pass a fender bender.

There’s a lot of commuters on the roads in and around the Tri-Cities during the daily drive-time. It’s more than a strain on a transportation infrastructure that is behind demand in many ways. It’s a strain on city services and a big loss in a jurisdiction’s sales tax collections.



Former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Philips used to grouse about 30,000 or so workers who commuted to Kingsport every day. He wasn’t the only voice of complaint, but he was often the loudest. He also didn’t hesitate to hint that what Kingsport needed was a commuter tax.

But if you look at the Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics tool Kingsport is not at the top of the commuter destination list. And, if you look at the share of jobs in each of the local cities held by workers who live outside that city the Model City is at the bottom of the list.

Johnson City sees the largest inflow of commuters, 33,878 according to the most current Census calculation. That’s to be expected. There are more jobs in Johnson City than the other local cities.

But if you look at the share of workers who live outside a local city Elizabethton tops the list. The number of commuters may be paltry compared to Kingsport and Jonson City, but they account for 85.5% of the jobs.

Local commute patterns have many benefits and ramifications for local cities but first things first. Here are the Census numbers on the number of workers commuting to local cities. The chart rounds out the share of jobs by workers who live outside each city.

Johnson City – 33,878

Kingsport – 30,132

Bristol TN – 11,273

Bristol VA – 9,234

Elizabethton – 7,093

Erwin – 2,921

It’s easy to understand why city officials would love it if people lived where they worked. It would be a big shot in the arm in local sales tax collections. That’s a big deal because of Tennessee’s reliance on sales tax collections to fund local services. It’s part of the bottom line that effects the number of police officers, firemen, etc. and how much the folks at City Hall get paid.

And since the local natural population rate is negative – that simply means our death rate is higher than our birth rate – where people decided to live is a big factor in attracting new residents – also known as the only way local population numbers increase.

According to UNC Wilmington, each newcomer who settles in a city or town generates $25,000 a year consuming services and creating demand for jobs in medical, pharmacy, finance, insurance, real estate, food, retail, etc. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, consumer spending accounts for the largest portion of the U.S. economy. So, cities must ensure there is growth in the consumer base, which will in turn help to maintain a healthy local economy.

Here’s what the Census Bureau has to say about the number of people who live and work in the same local cities.

Kingsport – 11,434

Johnson City 10,154

Bristol TN – 2,125

Bristol VA – 1,931

Elizabethton – 1,203

Erwin – 591

The final number in the equation is how many workers from each of those cities commute to another city to work.

Johnson City – 13,135

Kingsport – 9,153

Bristol TN – 2,125

Bristol VA – 1,931

Elizabethton – 1,203

Erwin – 591

As vexing as this is for local officials they are pikers when it comes to cities that are hammered by commuter patterns. Governing magazine has several stories about commuter patterns and the growing interest in commuter fees.  Links at included at the bottom of the article.

One of those articles dug out the nonresident’s percent of the workforce for cities with 50,000 or more population. The share starts in Southfield, Mich. At 91.3%. You have to scroll down 48 cities before you find shares that match what Kingsport and Johnson City are seeing.

Since Tennessee’s Legislature has put the lid on growth by annexation cities are looking at all kinds of ways to come up with more money to pay for city needs – and wants.

Don’t be surprised if the daily commute is in the crosshairs in the not-too-distant future. No pun on road rage intended.

Is it Time to Put a New Commuter Tax in Drive?

Cities Considering Taxing Commuters to Drive Up Revenue



Categories: CORE DATA