A list of the 50 densest metropolitan areas in the country was released by the Census in September. Columbus came in 46 out of 50; just ahead of Omaha but well behind similarly-sized metros like Milwaukee and Las Vegas. (The metric used is something called population-weighted density, which the Census now favors as a measure of density since it eliminates some of the distortions caused by the huge variation in county sizes, and thus metro-areas, around the country).

The list isn’t necessarily surprising-Columbus does not feel especially dense compared to most of the older and/or coastal cities, so being #46 in density compared to #32 in population seems about right. What is surprising, though, was some of the cities that didn’t make the top 50. Where was St. Louis? How about Charlotte?

Density (or lack-there-of) is often an argument used against investing in public transportation. Columbus, the skeptics say, is a spread-out, car-based city with plenty of parking and not much traffic-light rail or streetcars just wouldn’t be successful in a place like this.

Taking a closer look at the Census data, there’s a lot of cities below Columbus on the density list that have successfully integrated rail transit into their transportation systems.

Here’s a list of cities that are less dense or about the same as Columbus that currently have or are in the process of building light rail, streetcar or commuter rail.

Metropolitan Statistical Area

2010 Population
Weighted Density¹

Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 3,383.4
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 3,323.0
Tucson, AZ 3,213.0
Columbus, OH 3,186.0
Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 3,131.5
Pittsburgh, PA 2,990.8
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 2,774.6
St. Louis, MO-IL 2,742.5
Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN 2,563.6
Memphis, TN-MS-AR 2,372.3
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 2,173.0
Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 1,881.3
Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 1,695.3
¹Overall population density expressed as average number of people per square mile. Population-weighted density is an average density of all census tracts in each area.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census. Internet Release Date: September, 2012.

There’s a great variety of systems on this list. Nashville, for instance, has only limited commuter rail service, while Pittsburgh has had a modern light rail system for decades. Charlotte provides a nice case study for Columbus. It’s similar in size (right behind Columbus in MSA population) and is also a newer city that has experienced much of its growth in recent decades. Its light rail system, started in 2007, has exceeded ridership estimates and won over critics. The fact that Charlotte is significantly less dense than Columbus helps to poke a large hole in the theory of density as a predictor of success or failure for light rail. Look for more on Charlotte’s system in a future post.

One thought on “The Density Debate”

  1. I am surprised that Salt Lake is not on this list. I visited family there a couple of years ago. The city seemed a lot more expansive than Columbus yet had a growing and thriving light rail system. Columbus would be a more lively city with a light rail system of some kind. I would visit Downtown locations more frequently if I did not have to worry about finding a place to park and dealing with traffic. There is nothing more frustrating than meeting friends for a movie and then getting stuck in the middle of traffic following a Blue Jackets game.

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