What If U.S. States Were Shaped According to Economics?

What If U.S. States Were Shaped According to Economics?
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How did each of the United States get its shape? The answers are as varied and diverse as the states themselves! Oftentimes, geographical barriers like mountains, rivers, or dense forests decided borders, but other times, politics came into play. For example, Michigan gained the Upper Peninsula as compensation when the state was forced to shrink, losing Gary to Indiana and Toledo to Ohio. And most of the western states are similarly sized, boring rectangles because Congress aimed for neat, equal land portions when forming them.

The numerous reasons make for a fascinating history lesson, but they're not exactly very scientific. What if – just for fun – we rearranged states according to a more practical attribute? Economics! In a paper published last November to the journal PLoS ONE, Dr. Alasdair Rae, a senior lecturer in urban studies and planning at Sheffield University, and Garrett Nelson, a postdoctoral fellow in geography at Dartmouth University, did just that.

Nelson and Rae used commuting as a proxy for economic activity, hypothesizing that it would visually demonstrate economic connectivity in a region. For data, they turned to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which contains origin and destination information for 4.15 million commutes from 3.5 million addresses between 2006 and 2010.

With such a bounty of data, Nelson and Rae crafted some beautiful figures. Below is a graphical representation of commutes in the region of Minneapolis-St. Paul.


And here is the entire United States. The different colors distinguish areas showing high interconnectivity. 


Nelson and Rae then used an algorithm to partition the Unites States into economic mega-regions. Most were typically small and centered around a large metropolitan area, but some were quite diffuse and oddly shaped. Here is the United States of America organized according to economic geography:

As you might've noticed, there are a few noteworthy changes: Iowa is merged with Illinois; Texas is now seven separate states; California is five; and a great swath of the Western U.S. is essentially a no man's land, as there isn't much connectivity to speak of.

Perhaps just as interesting is that three states – Minnesota, Arizona, and Michigan – remain largely intact.

Nelson and Rae aren't suggesting we do away with the current United States. After all, their analysis gives Toledo back to Michigan, which could reignite the Michigan–Ohio War! They do, however, believe that their map has a few practical applications.

"Such an analysis is of potential use in a wide variety of fields, including transit planning, real estate, retail analysis, and infrastructure development, to name a few."

Source: Dash Nelson G, Rae A (2016) An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0166083. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166083

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