A panoramic shot capturing the towering San Bernardino Mountains in the background, while the sprawling citrus groves and urban landscape of the Inland Empire stretch out in the foreground.

What Is The Inland Empire?

The Inland Empire region of Southern California is located east of Los Angeles and has become one of the fastest growing areas in the state. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The Inland Empire refers to the areas of Riverside County and San Bernardino County in Southern California.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the definition of the Inland Empire, its history and development, major cities and attractions, economy and job market, population demographics, culture and arts scene, housing market, transportation infrastructure, education system, and the future outlook for the region.

Definition and Location of the Inland Empire

Riverside and San Bernardino Counties

The Inland Empire refers to the metropolitan area centered around Riverside and San Bernardino counties in Southern California. These adjoining counties are located east of Los Angeles County and the coast, which is how the region got its name as being the “inland” part of Southern California.

Bordering Regions

The Inland Empire borders Los Angeles County to the west, Orange County to the southwest, and San Diego County to the south. It stretches eastward across the desert areas of California all the way to the state border with Arizona.

So the region spans a diverse geographical area from coastal plains to arid desert.

Major Cities and Population Centers

Some of the major cities and population centers in the Inland Empire include:

  • Riverside – The county seat of Riverside County and the largest city in the Inland Empire with a population of around 330,000 as of 2020.
  • San Bernardino – The county seat of San Bernardino County and the second largest city in the region with a population of over 200,000.
  • Ontario – A major suburb in San Bernardino County, located near the Ontario International Airport. Population around 180,000.
  • Fontana – Located in San Bernardino County with a population exceeding 210,000 as of recent estimates.
  • Rancho Cucamonga – A large suburb in San Bernardino County, population around 177,000 residents.
  • The Inland Empire had an estimated total population of around 4.6 million as of 2021, making it one of the major population centers in California. It continues to experience rapid growth and development to this day.

    History and Development of the Inland Empire

    Pre-20th Century

    The Inland Empire region of Southern California has a long history going back to the Spanish colonial era. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries established missions in the area, including Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and Mission San Juan Capistrano.

    These missions brought Spanish settlers to the region and began the colonization process. The Native American populations like the Tongva, the Cahuilla and the Serrano were impacted by the mission system and European settlement.

    In the early 19th century, the Inland Empire was part of the rancho system under Mexican rule after Mexico’s independence from Spain. Large ranchos were granted to individuals by the Mexican government, leading to the expansion of ranching and agricultural activities in the area.

    American settlers started arriving in the late 1840s during the California Gold Rush, establishing communities like Riverside.

    Post-WWII Growth

    The Inland Empire began to rapidly expand in the 1950s and 1960s due to migration from Los Angeles and the affordable suburban housing being constructed. Significant population growth occurred in cities like Ontario, San Bernardino, Fontana and Moreno Valley.

    This was facilitated by the expansion of transportation infrastructure, especially the construction of interstate highways like Interstates 10, 15 and 215 that connected the Inland Empire to metro Los Angeles.

    The economy also diversified from agriculture to include manufacturing, logistics and services. Norton Air Force Base and March Air Force Base drove some of this economic activity. In the 1980s, commercial and residential real estate development accelerated, creating the foundations for the modern Inland Empire economy.

    However, the recession in the early 1990s stalled growth until the 2000s.

    Recent Expansion

    Over the last two decades, the Inland Empire has continued to expand its population, economy and infrastructure. Between 2000 and 2015, the population increased over 30% to around 4.5 million residents. Job growth occurred in industries like warehousing, healthcare, construction and retail.

    New master-planned communities provided homes for residents.

    While growth slowed during the Great Recession in the late 2000s, the regional economy recovered. The logistics industry has seen considerable expansion in the Inland Empire, which serves as a critical warehousing and distribution hub for Southern California.

    E-commerce fueled growth has led big companies like Amazon to open large warehouses, bringing jobs to the region. This growth is supported by inland ports and airports. However, issues like poverty, air pollution and housing affordability remain challenges.

    Still, the Inland Empire continues to evolve from its agricultural roots into a diverse, populous region.

    Economy and Job Market in the Inland Empire

    Key Industries

    The Inland Empire has a diverse economy with key industries like logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, retail, construction, and more. Some of the major employers in the region include Amazon fulfillment centers, hospitals like Loma Linda University Medical Center, the Ontario International Airport, and large shopping centers.

    Logistics has become a vital industry due to the Inland Empire’s prime location for transporting goods. Over 50 million square feet of industrial space has been built in the last decade to support fulfillment centers and warehouses for companies like Amazon, FedEx, and UPS.

    Manufacturing also remains an essential part of the local economy. Major manufacturing sectors include aerospace, automotive, and medical devices. For example, Stater Bros. Markets manufactures many of its private label goods in the region.

    Income and Wages

    The median household income in the Inland Empire was approximately $67,000 in 2022, which is lower than California overall at $80,000. However, wages have been rising with average weekly earnings up 4.2% year-over-year as of Q3 2022.

    Many residents commute outside the region for higher-paying jobs. But increased development, particularly in logistics, healthcare, and professional/tech services, aims to improve income levels across the Inland Empire.

    California $80,000
    Inland Empire $67,000

    Unemployment Rates

    Over the last decade, the Inland Empire generally had higher unemployment levels than California and the US. The recent pandemic temporarily caused rates to spike to 15% in 2020. Still, the regional economy rebounded strongly, and unemployment dropped to just 3.6% as of November 2022.

    With over 130,000 new jobs added in the last three years, the Inland Empire has outperformed most areas in job creation. Major ongoing infrastructure projects, like the Ontario Airport expansion and building out a skilled workforce, will support more growth.

    Population Demographics of the Inland Empire

    Ethnic Diversity

    The Inland Empire is known for its ethnic diversity. According to census data, as of 2019, 49% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. The white population makes up 34%, while 8.7% identify as Black or African American.

    Asians account for 7.6% and those identifying with two or more races make up 4.8%.

    With such a diverse population, the Inland Empire benefits from a blending of cultures. Festivals celebrating Mexican, Asian and African heritage take place annually. The region also has a variety of cuisine reflecting its multicultural fabric.

    From taco trucks to pho restaurants to soul food kitchens, there’s something for every taste.

    Age Distribution

    The Inland Empire trends younger than statewide averages. As of the 2020 census, the median age was 36.7, lower than the median age of 39.3 in California overall. Over 30% of the population is under age 25.

    The largest demographic living in the I.E. is the 25-44 age group, making up 27% of the population. Next is the under 18 category at 25.4%. Seniors over 65 make up just 13.8%, much lower than the state average. This youthful makeup creates an energetic vibe throughout many Inland communities.

    Household Types

    The most common household type, at over 63%, is the family household consisting of a householder with one or more individuals related. Non-family households make up 36.4% of homes. This includes people living alone or with unrelated roommates.

    Of family homes, 46.3% include children under 18 years old. This high percentage of kids and large families means many neighborhoods cater to these demographics with family-friendly attractions and ample green spaces.

    Additionally, the housing stock contains proportionately more single-family detached homes versus multi-unit buildings than found statewide. Over 63% of occupancies are owner-occupied compared to just 54.8% for California overall.

    Housing Market and Real Estate in the Inland Empire

    Home Values and Prices

    The Inland Empire’s housing market has seen substantial growth in recent years. As of January 2024, the median home price in the region is around $525,000, up over 15% from just a year ago. This rapid appreciation is being driven by strong demand stemming from relative affordability compared to coastal areas, population and job growth, and low interest rates.

    While home values vary widely across the Inland Empire’s two counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, prices have risen rapidly in most cities. For example, the median home price in Riverside is $580,000 as of January 2024, up 18% year-over-year.

    More affordable areas are seeing even larger yearly gains, like Moreno Valley where the median is up 25% to $465,000.

    The Inland Empire offers much more affordable housing compared to neighboring Los Angeles and Orange Counties. This price differential is luring buyers inland and putting upward pressure on home values. However, prices are still reasonable given the region’s amenities and job opportunities.

    Rental Prices

    Along with rising home prices, rents in the Inland Empire have also been increasing quickly. As of January 2024, the average apartment rent within the region is approximately $1,850 per month, an 11% increase from the prior year according to data from Rent.com.

    Rental rates vary across the Inland Empire based on factors like city, size, and amenities. For example, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Temecula goes for around $1,700 per month. In contrast, rents in less affluent cities like San Bernardino average closer to $1,200 for a comparable unit.

    However, prices are up sharply across the board as population growth leads to housing shortages.

    While rising rents may challenge some Inland Empire residents, prices are still relatively affordable compared to coastal hubs. For example, rents in Riverside are approximately 40% cheaper than comparable units in Los Angeles per square foot.

    This cost differential continues to attract renters from pricier neighboring regions.

    New Construction

    With housing demand booming, new construction is surging across the Inland Empire. In 2022, over 18,000 new residential building permits were issued in the region. While this represents a slight cooling from 2021’s decade-high figure, it still signifies a robust pace of homebuilding.

    Several large housing developments are underway or recently completed, like Quail Run in Menifee which will add over 1,000 new units. Ontario Ranch is another massive upcoming project slated to build more than 13,000 homes.

    Major expansions like these showcase developers’ confidence in the region’s housing market.

    However, some local governments are becoming hesitant about rapid growth. For example, Temecula’s city council recently enacted temporary building restrictions over concerns too much construction could strain infrastructure.

    Balancing development and livability will be an ongoing challenge amidst the region’s population boom.

    Infrastructure for Transportation in the Inland Empire

    Highways and Roads

    The Inland Empire is serviced by an extensive network of highways and roads. Some of the major highways include Interstates 10, 15, 215, and the 60 and 91 freeways. These highways connect the Inland Empire to Los Angeles, Orange County, and other regions of Southern California.

    According to the latest data from Caltrans, over 5 million vehicles per day travel on I-10 and I-15 in the Inland Empire region. This high volume of traffic leads to frequent congestion during peak commute times.

    To help alleviate congestion, there are plans to add more lanes on certain freeways, improve interchanges, and extend existing highways. For example, the 60 freeway is undergoing a major expansion through Diamond Bar and Pomona.

    In addition to the major highways, there are thousands of miles of arterial and collector roads that connect Inland Empire cities and neighborhoods. Some of the major surface streets include Foothill Blvd, Haven Ave, Milliken Ave, Van Buren Blvd, and Valley Blvd.

    Public Transit

    Public transportation options in the Inland Empire include commuter rail, bus rapid transit, local buses, and dial-a-ride services. The Metrolink commuter rail system provides service on 5 lines that connect the Inland Empire to Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Bernardino County.

    According to Metrolink’s 2021 annual report, average weekday ridership in the region was over 36,000 boardings. The Omnitrans bus agency provides local bus service in the San Bernardino Valley with 34 fixed routes.

    Ridership on Omnitrans has increased in recent years, totaling over 10 million passenger trips in 2021. There are also express commuter buses run by Omnitrans and Riverside Transit Agency (RTA) that offer service to downtown LA, Irvine, and other job centers.

    RTA provides local bus service in western Riverside County on 35 fixed routes. The Gold Line bus rapid transit route runs between Pasadena and Montclair, with future plans to extend further into the Inland Empire.

    While public transit is available, the low density suburban development of much of the region presents challenges for efficient transit service.


    The major commercial airport in the Inland Empire is Ontario International Airport (ONT), with over 5 million passengers in 2021. ONT provides domestic and international flights from major air carriers including American, Delta, Southwest, and United.

    There are plans to expand ONT’s terminals and add more gates to accommodate projected growth. Other smaller airports in the region include San Bernardino International Airport (SBD) and Palm Springs International Airport (PSP).

    SBD serves cargo as well as private and charter flights, while PSP provides service to popular vacation destinations with nearly 2.5 million passengers in 2021. Overall, the airports provide important air connectivity for business and leisure travel to and from the Inland Empire region.

    Education System in the Inland Empire

    Public School Districts

    The Inland Empire is home to over 30 public school districts serving students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Some of the largest districts include Corona-Norco Unified, Fontana Unified, Moreno Valley Unified, and Riverside Unified.

    Together these major districts enroll over 250,000 students across hundreds of elementary, middle, and high schools.

    Inland Empire public schools provide quality education focused on core subjects like English, math, science, and social studies. Many districts offer enrichment programs in arts, music, world languages, technical skills, and more. Gifted and accelerated programs nurture top academic performers.

    Special education services support students with disabilities. Demographic shifts have led to expanding multicultural and multilingual learner programs across the region.

    While not without challenges, most Inland Empire districts meet state and federal accountability benchmarks. In 2022 over half of IE 11th graders met or exceeded English language arts standards on state tests while over one third met or exceeded in math.

    Graduation rates also typically exceed the California average. Continued growth will put pressure on districts to build facilities, hire staff, and ensure equitable access to opportunity for all students.

    Colleges and Universities

    The Inland Empire is home to a robust higher education system anchored by strong community colleges and universities. Well-known schools include:

    • University of California, Riverside – a top research university with over 22,000 students
    • California State University, San Bernardino – a comprehensive regional university with over 20,000 students
    • California State Polytechnic University, Pomona – a polytechnic university focused on science, technology, engineering, and math
    • Riverside Community College District – serving over 30,000 students with campuses across western Riverside County
    • San Bernardino Community College District – serving 17,000 students at two main campuses

    Between these major institutions and others like La Sierra University and California Baptist University, the Inland Empire provides accessible education options from certificates to doctoral degrees. Fields like business, education, health sciences, public administration, social services, arts and letters, and more are well represented across IE higher education.

    In 2022 there were over 125,000 students enrolled at the bachelor’s level or higher across the main IE universities. Tens of thousands more attend community and technical colleges, private universities, or extension sites and satellite campuses.

    Partnerships between sectors aim to streamline transfers and improve rates of educational attainment across the diverse communities of the region.

    Adult Education

    For adults seeking to improve career prospects, finish high school, learn English, or pursue lifelong enrichment, the Inland Empire has options. Most school districts offer tuition-free adult education programs funded by state and federal grants.

    Classes are available in academic subjects, high school diploma/GED prep, ESL, citizenship, digital skills, vocational training, and more.

    Major adult school providers include Riverside Adult School, San Bernardino Adult School, Moreno Valley Adult School, Fontana Adult School, and Corona-Norco Adult Education. Classes typically take place on high school campuses but some programs partner with community sites like libraries, recreation centers, and churches to improve neighborhood access.

    Riverside Adult School 8,000+ annual enrollments
    SB Adult School 5,000+ annual enrollments
    Moreno Valley Adult School 3,000+ annual enrollments

    An estimated 50,000-75,000 adults enroll in state-supported adult education across the Inland Empire each year. As the population grows and employers seek skilled workers, investment in adult schools and partnerships with regional workforce development networks will be key.

    Arts and Culture Scene in the Inland Empire

    Museums and Galleries

    The Inland Empire is home to over 30 museums showcasing history, art, and science. Some of the most popular museums include the California Science Center with interactive exhibits on space, technology, and wildlife; the Riverside Art Museum featuring contemporary art and unique architecture; and the San Bernardino County Museum covering regional history and geology (1).

    Many cities also have local history museums and historic downtown areas with art galleries, like Redlands, Claremont, and Riverside’s well-known Mission Inn area.

    Performing Arts Venues

    Residents and visitors can enjoy live theater, dance, comedy, and music across various venues. Some of the top spots include the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside hosting over 175 shows per year with headliners like Jerry Seinfeld and Broadway musicals (2); the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga showing theater, dance, music acts, and speakers; and Ontario’s Toyota Arena featuring major concerts and sporting events (https://www.toyoata-arena.com/).

    Local Cuisine

    The Inland Empire is known for its diverse dining scene reflecting the region’s cultural mix. Popular local eats include Mexican food like tacos, tamales, and burritos; Mediterranean dishes like shawarma and falafel; Asian favorites like phở noodle soup and dim sum; and classic American burgers, pizza, barbecue, and more.

    Some iconic establishments in the area are Walter’s Restaurant dishing out burgers and pie since 1945 (3); The Sycamore Inn steakhouse operating since 1848 (4); and the famous Original Tops drive-in burger joint open since 1953 (5).

    Inland Empire Museums Over 30
    Live Shows at Fox Theater Yearly Over 175
    Years The Sycamore Inn Has Operated Over 175

    Future Outlook for the Inland Empire Region

    Population Growth Projections

    The Inland Empire region is expected to see substantial population growth in the coming years. According to projections from the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the region’s population could increase by over 1 million residents by 2045, reaching nearly 6.5 million people.

    This rapid growth can be attributed to the Inland Empire’s relatively affordable housing prices compared to coastal areas like Los Angeles and Orange County. The region has seen an influx of families and individuals seeking more budget-friendly options.

    The area also has plenty of land available for new housing construction to accommodate the expanding population.

    Along with housing growth, the swelling population will drive demand for infrastructure upgrades, new businesses and commercial development, and expanded public services. Local leaders face the challenge of managing and guiding this boom sustainably.

    Overall, the Inland Empire’s ascending population trajectory paints an optimistic economic picture moving forward.

    Infrastructure Expansion Plans

    To support the Inland Empire’s burgeoning population, state and local agencies have unveiled plans for substantial infrastructure enhancements in the coming decades.

    For example, SANBAG’s 2020 Countywide Transportation Plan calls for major transit expansions like express bus services, carpool lanes, passenger rail, and bike routes. These mobility upgrades aim to curb congestion and connect communities as growth continues.

    SANBAG also intends to promote sustainability by shifting more regional travel to public and active modes.

    Likewise, the Upper Santa Ana River Watershed Integrated Regional Water Management Plan outlines strategies to boost water supply reliability as demand rises. These solutions encompass increased storage capacity, water use efficiency, stormwater capture, recycled water usage, and water transfers.

    On energy, SCAG projections estimate the Inland Empire will need to double its electricity generation and distribution infrastructure by 2045. Utility companies are working to upgrade regional grids and integrate renewable sources to power future growth sustainably.

    Sustainability Efforts

    With the wave of projected population and economic growth, Inland Empire cities and counties understand the imperative to expand strategically and sustainably moving forward.

    Many municipalities have enacted General Plans concentrating new development in transit-friendly areas and setting eco-conscious policies on waste, water, energy, and carbon emissions. For example, San Bernardino County recently implemented a renewable energy ordinance requiring large new residential projects to source at least 15% of their power from solar or other renewables.

    The Southern California region also has ambitious sustainability goals, with SCAG’s Connect SoCal plan targeting per capita GHG emission reductions of 19% by 2035. Combining responsible planning with technological innovation and public-private cooperation will enable the Inland Empire to grow its economy while preserving natural assets for future generations.


    In conclusion, the Inland Empire is a growing region in Southern California that encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Once viewed mainly as rural and agricultural areas, the Inland Empire has developed rapidly in recent decades into a major population and economic center in California, though issues like traffic congestion, housing affordability, and jobs-housing balance remain ongoing challenges.

    This overview of the definition, history, economy, demographics, housing market, infrastructure, education, culture, and future prospects of the Inland Empire covers the key essentials in understanding this vital region of Southern California.

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