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The thing is, it's a good enough approximation and it's comparatively hard (for a layperson anyway) to collect statistics at the census block level instead of county level.

Just taking King County (the core of the Seattle MSA that includes Melakwa Lake--nice hiking/camping spot, by the way): There are almost 2 million people in the county and most of them live in the metro (city/suburb) part. Those who live in rural or near-wilderness areas are such a small portion of the total that you don't lose much analyzing things at the MSA level.

I don't really see the point of changing county boundaries--most of the metro government functions are served by municipal or metro regional government. For example, Sound Transit includes only areas within the urban growth area, and King County Metro, while nominally countywide, has very little service in the rural areas outside of the ST district. I also think that it's helpful to include surrounding rural and wilderness areas because ecologically and socially they function as a unit and all of the parts are necessary for the whole to function.

Eric Fischer

Excellent article!

And on the other end of the spectrum, you also have cases like San Jose being treated as a separate metropolitan area from San Francisco and Oakland, even though these areas have been connected by continuous urbanization for decades.

G-Man (Type E)

Why doesn't more urban research use "Urbanized Area" which is defined by density and adjacency of census blocks (at least AFAIK)? I have had some difficulty getting data at that level, but it seems like it should be easy to aggregate from the census if there was a market of people interested in using it. I suppose MSA has better comparative value in temporal analysis because county boundaries don't often change, while UA is redefined with each census...


The Census Urbanized Areas are more useful, and I wish they were more used for this kind of thing. While they occasionally draw arbitrary boundaries (including the one Eric Fischer mentioned above) they are a meaningful way to compare cities without being confused by artificial boundaries (for example, just as bad as talking about the LA CMSA is talking about the City of Los Angeles, which has some of the oddest borders of any city in the country.

Justin N

I think it's key to understand the unit of analysis you're talking about when doing an analysis based on MSA's. If you want to say something about *people* in metro areas, the MSA is probably a fine measure- the minor statistical noise introduced by the handful of people who live outside of the "metro" bits of the MSA is probably negligible, and the improvement in your results in using some finer-grained measure probably isn't worth the time.

However, if you want to talk about *geography* in metro areas- as we often do when we talk about transit- they have some significant disadvantages as detailed above.

Al Dimond

Riverside-San Bernardino, as a "Metro Area", shows up on a lot of top-10 or bottom-10 lists for various things. I never realized its geography was so extreme... that's surely a reason for its extreme results.

Morgan Wick

One disadvantage of urbanized areas, as far as I know, is that they don't have the equivalent of PMSA's for polycentric regions, which might not be useful for talking about the general agglomeration of people, but which is useful for talking about any level of transit more granular than commuter rail or BART.

Use of urbanized areas and demand for data involving them would probably double if they were called "urbanized metropolitan areas".

Alon Levy

Brookings' methodology, despite its many faults, does not actually compute things based on dirt. It computes things based on what percentage of people and of jobs are in their view transit-accessible.

The Palm Springs-Riverside problem is real, but any competent study (which Brookings' isn't) should resolve this by weighting things based on actual commute markets.


The above pictures of wilderness do not represent the focus of the long-standing Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program! In this study did Brookings do computations and create findings and conclusions that include averages encompassing absurd applications of urban transit, such as travel times from Needles to Riverside in California? I doubt it, but I'll check and be back at some point later.


NOTE: In response to comments up to this point, I've added the new paragraph beginning "A deeper problem ..."


FiveThirtyEight wrote a pretty interesting critique of the Brookings study too: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/thinktanks-gone-wild-on-the-economics-of-mass-transit-and-the-value-of-common-sense/

(BTW, thanks for visiting my blog, Jarrett. I didn't know about the prickly pear legacy. And I love "radioactive cuteness of the koala"!).


Blech, sorry for repeating a link from an earlier post...

Alan Kandel

To me, this is all mumbo jumbo, especially when it comes to trying to interpret what metro area population in any meaningful way. Just look at some of the definitions Webster provides for "metropolitan," "community," and "city."

Webster defines metropolitan as: "1. characteristic of a metropolis or its inhabitants, esp. in sophistication. 2. of or pertaining to a large city and its surrounding communities: the New York metropolitan area." ("the New York metropolitan area " is italicized).

Community, meanwhile, is defined by Webster as: "1. a group of people who reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common culture and historical heritage. 2. a locality inhabited by such a group. 3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests: the business community." ("the business community" is italicized).

City, on the other hand, as defined by Webster is: "1. a large or important town. 2. (in the U.S.) an incorporated municipality, usu. governed by a mayor and council."

When traveling along the highway and upon entering a metropolitan area, signs are posted identifying the metro area about to be entered, and provide the population and elevation. The population statistic listed doesn't take into consideration the population in the county outside the immediate metropolitan area.

As for "Metropolitan Statistical Area," how does this term help? It sounds like another way of saying "county". And if this is the case, why not just say "county"?

"Conurbation" is in my view one of those words that leaves nothing to interpretation. As defined by Webster, conurbation is: "an extensive urban area resulting from the expansion of several cities or towns so that they coalesce but usu. retain their separate identities."

Some of the definitions Webster provides for town, meanwhile, are: "1. a thickly populated area, usu. smaller than a city and larger than a village, having fixed boundaries and certain local powers of government. 2. a densely populated area of considerable size, as a city or borough."

Like I said, mumbo jumbo.

Alan Kandel

Please forgive. The word "culture" contained in the definition of "community" above, should instead be "cultural."

Alon Levy

As for "Metropolitan Statistical Area," how does this term help? It sounds like another way of saying "county". And if this is the case, why not just say "county"?

Because in the East, counties are small and MSAs consist of many of them. The New York metro area defined in terms of small municipalities is quite close to the county-based CSA.

Alan Kandel

Food for thought: In the interest of conciseness and clarity, it may be more appropriate just to classify the extreme inner cores or downtowns of cities as "urbs," while the outermost areas could either be classified "exurbs" or "rural areas," depending on situation. Meanwhile, the area between the extreme inner cores or urbs and the outermost exurb or rural areas, these would be designated "suburbs."

Compare cities

Traveling experience in the metropolitan area is amazing.

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