What might a map of the United States look like if we started fresh today?
State boundaries matter for all sorts of reasons. The state you live in determined how much your vote counted in the 2016 election. It shapes what kind of benefits your employer might offer you, what taxes you pay, what kind of schools you can attend, and much more.
And yet, most state boundaries were drawn during the 17th to 19th centuries, says Garrett Nelson, a historical geographer at Dartmouth College. “Why should we think that areas which were drawn up for horses and buggies still make sense for interstates and telecommuting?”
Nelson, along with Alasdair Rae of the University of Sheffield, has published new research in the journal PLOS ONE that shows how we might redraw state lines today, if given the opportunity. Their insights have profound implications for how business and political leaders can better organize as a region to work toward policies and projects that help their communities, as well as how Americans should think about the rural-urban divide following the 2016 election.
In the study, the researchers used algorithms to analyze data on the commuting paths of more than 4 million Americans from the U.S. Census. They then created maps of what they call economic “mega-regions” — cities, satellite cities, towns and suburbs that are woven together into the communities where Americans live, work and spend their free time. The researchers argue that these, rather than the current states, are the real units that make up the U.S. economy.
In the map below, each “mega-region” is labeled with a different color. All have one or more cities at their centers — the blue area is centered around Chicago, for example, while the forest green stretch encompasses Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
To map out these mega-regions, the researchers used the volume of commuter flow between locations as a proxy for the economic connection between two areas.
The researchers then used an algorithm to identify the best boundaries to 50 economic communities. That’s how they created the map below, showing what our 50 states might look like if they were redrawn today based on economic connections:
The researchers say the maps offer a different perspective on the U.S. than the one many people have adopted since the election. The election gave a picture of a country that is starkly divided into urban and rural areas. Yet these maps show that most parts of the country are actually economically well-integrated, Nelson says.
“The reality is that cities, suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas are all extensively connected to one another — not only by commuter traffic, but by all sorts of economic and social connections. While a voter in downtown Boston and a voter in rural Maine might not feel like they have very much in common, our research suggests that they are actually part of an interlocking regional system,” he says.
These maps are not only interesting, but the new divisions seem realistic. Would that have affected the election?
One thing is for sure: Such a map would have changed Trump’s campaign strategy.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock