NC needs to better invest in cities

Christopher Gergen
Christopher Gergen

What’s the relationship between North Carolina’s commuting culture and the future of our economy?

According to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 4.2 million North Carolinians (40 percent of our population), commute to work with an average drive time of 23 minutes.

In most cases, the largest commuting flow is within the same county as someone lives. However, there are a number of “destination” counties that are home to major regional cities including Elizabeth City, Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington and Winston-Salem. The largest cross-county commuting flows occur in the Triangle and Charlotte.

Every day, for example, approximately 51,400 commuters drive from Wake County to Durham County and an additional 30,000 workers drive from Johnston County to Wake. Mecklenburg County has over 100,000 commuters drive in daily to greater Charlotte from Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties.

Through a different lens, Wake County has 482,000 workers with 22 percent commuting in.

Influenced in part by the draw of Research Triangle Park, nearly 51 percent of workers in Durham are not county residents. Similarly, UNC-Chapel Hill helps contribute to 49 percent of Orange County’s workers not living in the county. For a comprehensive perspective on our state’s commuting patterns from 2009-13, there is a great map provided by UNC’s Carolina Population Center.

Essentially, North Carolina’s counties are highly interdependent. This has significant consequences for economic policy.

Much has been made in the last few years about the rural and urban divide and there have been frequent debates in the legislature about where economic investment should be put. This zero sum game misses the point.

For our rural communities and “micro-politans” to thrive, our metro areas have to be economically healthy. For eastern North Carolina to prosper, for example, the economic stability of Elizabeth City, Jacksonville and Greenville are critical. Asheville helps serve as an economic catalyst for western North Carolina. The Piedmont is economically buoyed by the Triangle and Triad. Charlotte and Fayetteville are significant economic hubs for their respective regions.

In his book “North Carolina in the Connected Age,” N.C. State economist Michael Walden writes how our technologically connected age has completely transformed the state’s economy and demography. With the fall of tobacco, textiles and furniture, other sectors have risen including high tech, pharmaceuticals, finance, food processing and the manufacturing of vehicle parts.

This has created new economic clusters across the state. In looking at these clusters as well as commuting trends, it becomes apparent that North Carolina increasingly looks like a hub and spoke economy. Walden suggests that among North Carolina’s 100 counties, there are 21 clusters that typically have an economic center driven by one or more industries in which people from surrounding communities are connected.

Though in different clusters, according to Walden, Wilson’s proximity to Raleigh provides a good example of a spoke and hub relationship. With its historic downtown, vibrant arts community (featuring the newly developed Whirligig Park), a gigabit of high-speed internet through Greenlight (Wilson’s community-owned fiber network), Barton College, Wilson Community College and low cost of living, Wilson is a great place to call home. Even better: it’s 50 miles from downtown Raleigh (with an Amtrak connection) and 67 miles to RDU airport making it easy to live in Wilson but stay connected to the Triangle’s flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem and the global economy.

Underinvesting in our cities is counter-productive. If our economic hubs decline then the surrounding communities fall with them. Rather, we should be building up our urban areas and strengthening the spoke connections – creating regional “urban-rural alliances.” These alliances could include investing in better connective transit and tech infrastructure as well as shared data systems to reduce crime and increase public safety. Since a well-qualified workforce is critical to economic prosperity, these alliances could also result in creative approaches to talent development, investing in regional education systems that reinforce the rise of local economic clusters. Furthermore, if we help rebuild downtowns in the “spoke” communities and foster connections to the hub cities, people may find it even easier to telecommute – reducing commuting frequency and contributing to a renaissance of small town living.

This approach won’t address all of North Carolina’s economy or population. There are rural parts of the state that are far enough from metro hubs that they deserve their own economic development strategy. However, the vast majority of our state lives and works within metro regions that deserve a fresh approach to hub-and-spoke economic development.

Christopher Gergen is founding partner of HQ Community, CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.