When planners designed Southern California’s freeway system, one goal was to get commuters from their homes in suburban Orange County to their jobs in Los Angeles County.
But Orange County’s days as primarily a bedroom community have been over for a long time, and transportation officials say it’s beginning to show in a shift in commuting patterns.
Officials expect that within the next 20 years, more commuters will take freeways from Los Angeles County to Orange County for work than travel in the opposite direction.
The projections underscore the rapid commercial growth in Orange County, where jobs are on the rise. It is also a reflection of the high cost of housing in Orange County, which has driven some of its workforce to move elsewhere.
A forecast by the Southern California Assn. of Governments says more Los Angeles County residents will be driving to work in Orange County by or before 2020, said Hasan Ikhrata, SCAG’s transportation expert.
By 2020, SCAG projects about 332,900 commuters from Los Angeles County will drive to Orange County, compared with about 289,300 drivers heading north to work, he said.
And the trend will grow. By 2030, the difference is expected to exceed 100,000.
The predicted shift in commuter flow is troubling to officials at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., who believe it’s symptomatic of a larger problem facing their region: sagging job growth and lack of available land for major employers.
“We don’t have enough land for industry to build these new jobs on,” said Bill Allen, president and chief executive of the agency.
Land once zoned industrial has slowly been lost to other uses, he said.
Agency officials also point to last year’s job growth. Orange County had 38,175 new jobs compared with 40,264 in Los Angeles County, which has more than three times the population, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the agency.
“The only raw land left in the county is in Palmdale,” he said, noting that the region’s new population and job growth is shifting to Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Those two counties have experienced one of the nation’s biggest population booms, spurred in part by cheaper housing.
Paul Taylor, executive director of planning development for the Orange County Transportation Agency, concurs with the prediction, provided that Orange County’s economy stays strong.
Los Angeles County development officials cite the long-term effect of zoning laws that have favored construction of schools, parks, and housing rather than preserving areas solely for industrial use.
In Orange County, transportation and economic experts point to a combination of factors at work, including the county’s low 3.7% unemployment rate, and higher housing costs that can lead to an inadequate worker pool, said Hamid Bahadori, principal transportation engineer for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
“If job growth exceeds housing in Orange County, then the county will attract additional employees not only from Riverside County but also from L.A. County,” he said.
Economic experts note the rise of major employment centers in Orange County, such as the Irvine Business Complex.
“Orange County has biomedical, tourism and computer software industry clusters, and L.A., other than Hollywood’s entertainment industry, doesn’t have a ton of new industry clusters,” said Wallace Walrod, research director at the Orange County Business Council.
“L.A. is pretty much fighting to hold onto what it has right now,” he said.
Officials with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority don’t agree that the commuting trends will widely diverge. They see a nearly equalizing trend of the same number of commuters going back and forth to work between the two counties.
“We see more of a balancing out to 2030 that still will be tilted” by a slight margin, with more commuters from Orange County still heading north to work in Los Angeles, said Brad McAllester, the MTA’s deputy executive of long-range planning.
Sara L. Catz, director of the Center for Urban Infrastructure at UC Irvine, hopes better transit and wider freeways can be developed to serve long-range needs because freeways are already congested in both directions.
“I’m a season ticket holder for the Dodgers and, years ago, when I would leave Orange County for the stadium, I was going against the flow of traffic and it took me only about an hour to get to the game,” Catz said.
“Now, because of people driving home to Los Angeles County on the I-5, it’s taking two hours or more,” she said.
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The number of commuters traveling to Orange County from Los Angeles County is projected to someday exceed those traveling in the opposite direction, according to traffic projections.
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