Philadelphia was America's first large city and served as the nation's capital for all but nine months between the inauguration of George Washington is the first president in 1789 and the capital transferred to Washington, DC in 1800.
Before the early 1900s, the United States Census Bureau had not developed a metropolitan area (labor market area) concept. However, the website peakbagger.com has attempted to define earlier metropolitan areas based on concepts similar to those used today. In the case of Philadelphia, this is important, because it was somewhat unique in having virtually adjacent, highly populated suburbs that make comparisons of municipal populations (the only population data available) misleading.
The Nation's Largest City
According to municipal population data, New York had become the largest municipality in the United States by the time of the first census, in 1790. Philadelphia was ranked second. However, a list of the top 24 urban places in 1790 shows two Philadelphia suburbs, Northern Liberties and the Southwark district. When peakbagger.com includes these suburbs, Philadelphia rises as the largest city (metropolitan area) in the nation in the 1790 and 1800 censuses. The New York metropolitan area is shown as rising to number one in 1810, a position it is held for 200 years and may last for much longer in light of the much slower growth rate recently for Los Angeles.
Soon the Nation's 9th Largest City?
Those were the glory days. In the years since 1800, Philadelphia has been falling in population rank. The Philadelphia metropolitan area was displaced first by Chicago in 1900, according to the metropolitan district estimates of the US Census Bureau. In 1940, Philadelphia was demoted to fourth place by Los Angeles. Philadelphia held fourth position until 2006, when Dallas-Fort Worth raced past it. Then just a few years later (2010), Houston knocked Philadelphia down to 6th place. The downward trend could accelerate rather quickly. At current growth rates (2010 to 2013), Philadelphia would be passed by Washington and Miami by the time of the 2020 census. The Atlanta metropolitan area would also pass Philadelphia if its population growth rate is restored to pre-Great Recession rates. Philadelphia should start the next decade as either the 9th or 10th largest metropolitan area in the nation.
Population Growth in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area
The Philadelphia metropolitan area is unusual in being divided between four states. The core city of Philadelphia is located in Pennsylvania. Directly across the Delaware River are the suburban counties of New Jersey. Wilmington, formerly the largest metropolitan area in Delaware has been incorporated into the Philadelphia metropolitan area (New Castle County). Maryland's Cecil County is also included in the metropolitan area.
All of Philadelphia's population growth since 1950 has been in the suburbs. In that year, the city of Philadelphia peaked at 2,072,000 residents. This was a healthy increase from the 1,930,000 in the 1940 census. However, this represented a decline from 1,951,000 in 1930 and shadowed massive population losses that would follow after 1950 (Cleveland and St. Louis also lost population between 1930 and 1940).
By 2000, the city’s population had dropped 27 percent to 1,518,000. This could prove its modern low, as the population recovered to 1,526,000 in the 2010 census and was estimated by the Census Bureau at 1,553,000 in 2013.
The suburbs of the metropolitan area as presently defined added nearly 2.6 million residents between 1950 and 2013. However, the metropolitan area only grew by 2.1 million residents because of the more than 500,000 loss in the city of Philadelphia. The inner ring suburbs, counties abutting Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania and New Jersey gained 1.8 million residents, while the outer suburbs gained nearly 800,000 residents (Figure 1).
Philadelphia has continued to lose domestic migrants to other areas of the country. Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 50,000 net domestic migrants left the Philadelphia area. Of this, 22,000 left the city of Philadelphia and 28,000 left the suburbs. The rate of domestic migration loss was 0.8 percent in the metropolitan area, 1.4 percent in the city of Philadelphia and 0.6 percent in the suburbs (Figure 2).
Within the metropolitan area, the commercial primacy of the core city of Philadelphia also has been reduced. Philadelphia has long been known for having one of the largest central business districts in the United States. The most recent census tract data from the CTPP indicates that Philadelphia has the sixth largest business district in the United States, with approximately 240,000 jobs. This represents only 8.7 percent of the metropolitan area employment, a figure slightly above the 8.4 percent average of the 52 major metropolitan areas (those with more than 1 million residents).
The development of Philadelphia's "center city" business district may have been stunted by city regulations that prohibited buildings to exceed the height of City Hall, topped off by a statue of city founder William Penn. At nine floors and approximately 550 feet (165 meters), City Hall was briefly the tallest building in the world in the early 1900s. City Hall remained a dominant feature of the skyline until the late 1980s, when One Liberty Place, with its 61 floors rose to 945 feet (290 meters). There are now 8 buildings taller than City Hall. Construction will soon begin on a new office and hotel tower , which at 1,120 foot tall (340 meters), 59 floor building would be the tallest building in the United States outside New York and Chicago (and taller, by 20 feet than Wilshire Grand now under construction in Los Angeles).
I have described the city of Philadelphia as a "transit legacy city," which along with New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington account for 55 percent of all the transit commuting destinations in the United States. This is nearly 10 times the share of jobs that are located in these six municipalities (not metropolitan areas).
Philadelphia, like the other five other transit legacy cities has an extensive urban rail system. Philadelphia has commuter rail lines extending outward to suburban locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. There are also two Metro lines (subway lines) and electric trolley lines. This transit system delivers 44 percent of commuters to "center city" jobs. This represents more than 40 percent of the transit commuting in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Transit's market share to work locations outside downtown is relatively small at 6.0 percent.
The nation's first long intercity tollway (the Pennsylvania Turnpike) passes through the Philadelphia metropolitan area. This route, in connection with the New Jersey Turnpike, the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Toll Road and the Chicago Skyway provided freeway equivalent access between the New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago metropolitan areas in the middle 1950s, before the interstate highway system was authorized.
Philadelphia's stagnant population growth is typical for the Northeast, which continues to lose domestic migrants to the rest of the nation. It seems likely to continue. In the two decades following 2020, Phoenix and Riverside-San Bernardino are projected by the US Conference of Mayors to pass Philadelphia. This would push Philadelphia down to 12th place, compared to the 4th ranking it had at the beginning of the 21st century. Quite a ride down for the City of Brotherly Love, and its surrounding region.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.
Photo: Philadelphia City Hall by Max Binder