People stream into Dakota County each weekday morning from practically every single county all across Minnesota, not to mention western Wisconsin.

But those who live in the county also head in surprising directions in surprising numbers — including straight south, away from the metro area’s major job concentrations.

When they do go north, they head into the west metro in far heavier numbers than the east, as anyone who has ever sat still on I-35W or Cedar Avenue will have observed.

These are among the findings of a new analysis of county-to-county commuting patterns by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The numbers depict a Dakota County that is the envy of its neighbor, Scott, in at least two ways:

• The employment numbers Dakota has managed to pile up over the years, owing to freeway and airport access, among other factors.

• The number of people who both live and work there and don’t need to cross the river, a movement that funnels traffic into a limited set of corridors and creates rush-hour gridlock.

“Dakota County is a substantial job center,” Ruthe Batulis, president of the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said after scanning the numbers.

“As many people commute within the county to jobs as go to Hennepin and Ramsey counties combined.”

In contrast, from Scott, more folks head for Hennepin alone than stay within the county to work.

The reaction to the numbers from Tom Wolf, Scott County’s board chairman: “Looks good for Dakota County; that’s our goal.”

But all that traveling within the county creates its own stresses and strains, Batulis noted.

When “we look at the cross-county commutes, we know that we need additional capacity [especially roads] to manage those trips, now and in the future. Right now there are not good east-west roads within the county” — or at any rate free-flowing roads free of loads of stoplights — “not to mention the chokepoints going from Burnsville and Lakeville across the river.”

Long commutes

One of the weirdest findings is how many super-long-range commutes are being reported to the Census Bureau in its surveys, which in this case cover the years from 2006 to 2010.

At least one person is said to be heading for Dakota County from about 70 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, including such faraway places as Roseau in the north and Watonwan in the south.

Some are so far away as to raise questions whether some workers are reporting the location of a corporate home office in Dakota County, not literally a daily commute destination.

Others may primarily work from home but occasionally make their way to the metro area. Ann Niebuhr, of Wells, Minn., west of Albert Lea, works for a nonprofit in St. Paul but spends most of her days in Wells.

“It’s nice for me,” she said, “because there isn’t much work in my job field in Wells, and I decided to move back to Wells to help out my family. I’m very grateful for this option because it allows me to be with my family and do a job where I can help people still. I still plan to come to the [Twin Cities] a couple days a week for meetings if needed.”

Heading south?

It also seems a surprise to see so little difference between the number of folks heading into Dakota from an exurban county like Goodhue, namely Red Wing and environs, and the number driving south from Dakota into Goodhue.

Red Wing being as pretty a town as it is, why, working there, would you live anyplace else?

“We love it here, it goes without saying,” said Patty Brown, president of the Red Wing Area Chamber of Commerce. “But some of that, at least, is the fact that with our larger companies, their upper managers often don’t live here, they live in the Cities, because their spouses work in the Cities. They’re coming south and the spouse is going north, and a town like Hastings is the midpoint.”

The same reason, no doubt, lies in part behind the huge flow to Dakota from Anoka County: thousands of people each day from a county far to the north.

Random facts

• Some larger outstate counties report a fair number of commuters into Dakota, including 144 from Stearns — where St. Cloud is the biggest city — and 87 from St. Louis, whose county seat is Duluth.

These figures do cover a period before the present-day volatility in gas prices, so they may reflect in part an earlier era of cheaper gas. But the Census Bureau also notes that in a recession, people can sometimes cover larger distances just to find work.

• The Dakota-to-Dakota group, almost 100,000 commuters daily, is the third-biggest commute group after Hennepin to Hennepin and Ramsey to Ramsey.

• The biggest cross-county movement is Ramsey to Hennepin, but the second-biggest is Dakota to Hennepin — more than 60,000 people. It’s only slightly larger, though, than Anoka to Hennepin, also about 60,000.

• The Hennepin-to-Dakota flow is about 19,000, or almost as many as Scott-to-Scott, a sign of what a draw Dakota is.

• The numbers are also a reminder of what a large county Dakota is in pure square miles, and how many places it borders on. Thousands head to Dakota from just two Wisconsin border counties alone.

To learn more...

The spreadsheets detailing county to county commute flows can be accessed at, but caution: Some are very large and slow to download and to work with, given the immense complexities of those daily movements.