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EDC: Cell phone data show more people are driving 60 to 90 miles to work in Bloomington-Normal

Ralph Weisheit

More people are commuting greater distances to work in Bloomington-Normal every day, with some traveling 60 to 90 miles to work here – and about a quarter of Rivian’s workers driving an hour to work each day. That’s according to an analysis of cell phone location data and tracking from Rivian itself.

The cell phone data, which has been stripped of personal identifiers, is now accessible to Bloomington-Normal economic development officials who recently subscribed to the location analytics tool Placer.ai. The data have many applications, but early on it’s been used to better understanding Bloomington-Normal’s regional pool of commuting workers, also known as its laborshed, said Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

McLean County doesn’t have enough working residents to fill all its jobs. So historically, its laborshed has included workers from between 30 and 45 miles away who commute in.

That cell phone data – which essentially reveals which ZIP code a cell phone returns to after working in McLean County – shows that’s changing, Hoban said.

“People are commuting even further than they have been in the past,” he said. “People are going 60 to 90 miles and actually driving into our community on a daily basis.”

Why is that? Hoban theorizes that it’s due in part to the number and type of jobs that exist in McLean County, including in resilient industries. And while 60 to 90 miles may be a long distance, those commuting through high-traffic Chicagoland, for example, may spend an equal amount of time in transit while only going a fraction of that distance, Hoban said.

Rivian attracts workers from all over

The electric automaker Rivian is one of those growing employers, adding 6,000 jobs in just the past two years to become the county’s second-largest employer. Rivian’s own data about where its Normal workers live show it’s a destination employer for much of central Illinois – well beyond McLean County.

About 50% of Rivian’s workers live in Bloomington-Normal, with another 7.5% from elsewhere in McLean County, the company said. The next largest group comes Greater Peoria, where 1,100 employees (17%) live in cities like Pekin, Washington, and East Peoria.

The rest (about 1,600 workers, or 24%) are scattered in Pontiac, Lincoln, Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, Springfield and rural areas in a 60-minute drive from the plant, Rivian said.

Hoban said Placer.ai’s data showed a similar geographic breakdown of Rivian’s employees. He said the data could help make the case for more housing construction in Bloomington-Normal.

“People on the outside are coming in, which helps us out with the housing data, to say, ‘Hey, we still have (42%) of these people driving in. If we had enough houses, they might live here instead of taking those dollars home at night,’” Hoban said.

The EDC has only had access to the data since around November, he said, so it’s still playing with the functionality. But another use case already underway is at Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington. They’re using the data to study how many people over time are driving from their homes in Central Illinois to another airport to fly toward the east or west coast, Hoban said.

“It could be an opportunity for us to attract other airlines, so they can see that everyone in Central Illinois has to go up to Chicago because we don’t have one of those flights at the regional airport,” Hoban said. “It could be a cool way to attract additional airlines (to Bloomington).”

The City of Bloomington and Town of Normal also have access to the Placer.ai data to aid retail recruitment. Individual businesses can contact the EDC if they want to pursue a location data-based study to determine where their workers are coming from, perhaps to help recruit more from those areas, Hoban said.

Placer.ai’s website has information about its approach to privacy. Placer.ai says it doesn’t show any data for locations with fewer than 50 unique devices.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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