Understanding Major Metropolitan Domestic Migration


It has been clear for years that net domestic migration to and from major metropolitan areas (over 1 million population) has been characterized by moving out of costly areas, like Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and New York to much less expensive areas, like Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta and Nashville. However, within these metropolitan areas, there are substantial variations.

It is important to understand that net domestic migration data is very limited. It is reported upon only at the county level by the Census Bureau. The population and geographic size of metropolitan area counties varies significantly, and much more about domestic migration within a metropolitan area can be deduced where counties are smaller. For example, the 25 counties in the New York metropolitan areas have an average population of more than 750,000 residents. By contrast, the two counties in the Los Angeles metropolitan area have an average population of 6.6 million. Obviously, domestic migration in the New York metropolitan area can be analyzed at a much more detailed level than in Los Angeles.

Moreover, since in most metros, the core cities are smaller than the core county, city net domestic migration data is usually not available. Exceptions are where cities are made up of complete counties, such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and San Francisco. An impossible situation exists in San Diego, Las Vegas and Tucson, where the metropolitan areas are composed of a single county, so it core and suburban county domestic migration cannot be compared.

Example: Nashville Metropolitan Area

The variation in trends illustrated by areas is illustrated, for example, within Nashville metropolitan area, which has emerged as one of the real winners in net domestic migration. From 2010 to 2019, the Nashville metro has gained 157,000 net migrants from other parts of the nation. But that does not mean that the city of Nashville (which happens to be a consolidated government with Davidson county) is experiencing net domestic migration. Indeed, it has experienced none. Since 2010, Nashville-Davidson (the city-county) actually has lost 4,000 net domestic migrants, while the suburban counties have gained 161,000. All other counties in the metropolitan area had net domestic migration gains.

Nashville-Davidson gained a net 12,000 migrants from 2010 to 2015, but lost 16,000 from 2015 to 2019. Suburban counties gained 70,000 net migrants from 2010 to 2015, rising to 91,000 from 2015 to 2019. This reflects the general trend of increased migration to smaller metropolitan areas and to less dense portions of major metropolitan areas. The bottom line is that only one in three of Nashville metropolitan area residents live in the city of Nashville.

Example: Dallas-Fort Worth

The suburban trend is even more stark in Dallas-Fort Worth, which has had the largest net domestic migration of any major metropolitan area since 2010 (443,000). Core Dallas County, however, experienced a huge net domestic migration loss, at 57,000 from 2010 to 2019. Only Dallas County lost domestic migrants in Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.

The city of Dallas is the largest municipality in metro Dallas-Fort Worth and comprises approximately 50 percent of the county population (1.3 million out of 2.7 million). More than all of this loss occurred in the latter half of the decade, with a loss of 61,000 from 2015 to 2019. At the same time, the suburban gain over the decade was 500,000, with 229,000 in the first five years and 271,000 in the next four. The bottom line is that only slightly more than one in six Dallas-Fort Worth residents live in the city of Dallas.

Other Examples

Metro Indianapolis, one of the leading Midwestern population growth centers exhibits a similar trend. Marion County is dominated by the core municipality of Indianapolis. From 2010 to 2019, Marion County lost 28,000 net domestic migrants, while the suburban counties gained 73,000.

Even where there are net domestic migration gains in core counties, such as in metro Portland, they are often a small minority of the overall gain. In core Multnomah County, the municipality of Portland comprises nearly 80 percent of the population. Only one in four Portland metropolitan area residents live in core Multnomah County.From 2010 to 2019, Multnomah County gained 20,000 net domestic migrants. By contrast, the suburban counties gained 100,000 net domestic migrants.

There can be net domestic migration gains even in metros that have had huge core population losses. For example, core Cuyahoga County in Cleveland lost 80,000 net domestic migrants in the decade, while the suburban counties gained 4,000. In Kansas City, the core county lost 6,000, while suburban counties gained 30,000.

Perhaps the ultimate error is to confuse the city of Atlanta with the fast growing Atlanta metropolitan area. The latest population estimates (2019) show that only one in 12 Atlanta metro residents live in the city of Atlanta.

Moving to Lower Urban Densities

Domestic migration to major metropolitan areas is dominated by suburban counties, rather than central counties. From 2010 to 2019, suburban areas led core counties in 41 of the 50 metropolitan areas with more than one county (Table), In the last four years, as net domestic migration has intensified in areas with lower population density, suburban areas led core counties in 43 metropolitan areas. Core counties since 2010 lost 2.2 million residents, while suburban counties gained 1.8 million. The difference was the equivalent to 4,000,000 residents moving from core counties to suburban counties.

As always, caution should be employed in characterizing net domestic migration for major metropolitan areas. More often than not migration to major metropolitan areas will not occur in the core counties (containing the core municipalities), but rather to suburban counties. The net domestic migration that is occurring to the Nashville, Dallas-Fort Worth and Indianapolis metropolitan areas is not to Nashville, Dallas and Indianapolis, but rather to surrounding suburbs. These are distinctions missed but may become even more critical once the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is taken into account.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

Photo: suburban St. Louis, by the author.

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Table 1

Major Metropolitan Areas

Net Domestic Migration: 2010-2019 (in thousands)

Metropolitan Area Core County Suburban Counties Metro Area
Atlanta, GA 48 195 243
Austin, TX 98 190 288
Baltimore, MD (62) 4 (58)
Birmingham, AL (20) 15 (4)
Boston, MA-NH (50) (54) (105)
Buffalo, NY (24) (6) (30)
Charlotte, NC-SC 69 160 229
Chicago, IL-IN-WI (437) (191) (628)
Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN (28) 9 (19)
Cleveland, OH (80) 4 (76)
Columbus, OH 16 37 53
Dallas-Fort Worth, TX (57) 500 443
Denver, CO 59 133 192
Detroit, MI (151) (10) (161)
Grand Rapids, MI 4 9 12
Hartford, CT (57) (12) (68)
Houston, TX (54) 316 262
Indianapolis. IN (28) 74 46
Jacksonville, FL 20 105 126
Kansas City, MO-KS (6) 30 24
Los Angeles, CA (634) (85) (719)
Louisville, KY-IN (13) 24 11
Memphis, TN-MS-AR (54) 6 (47)
Miami, FL (281) 88 (193)
Milwaukee,WI (72) 9 (63)
Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN-WI (4) 18 14
Nashville, TN (4) 161 157
New Orleans. LA 22 (10) 12
New York, NY-NJ-PA (884) (541) (1,425)
Oklahoma City, OK 14 50 63
Orlando, FL 53 134 187
Philadelphia, PA-NJ-DE-MD (90) (78) (168)
Phoenix, AZ 338 59 397
Pittsburgh, PA (28) (4) (32)
Portland, OR-WA 20 100 120
Providence, RI-MA (35) (3) (38)
Raleigh, NC 106 38 143
Richmond, VA 10 28 38
Riverside-San Bernardino, CA (25) 127 103
Rochester, NY (35) (11) (46)
Sacramento, CA 19 50 69
Salt Lake City, UT (2) 7 5
San Antonio, TX 110 99 209
San Francisco, CA (7) (27) (35)
San Jose, CA (126) 4 (122)
Seattle, WA 45 95 141
St. Louis,, MO-IL (40) (44) (83)
Tampa-St. Petersburg, FL 104 186 290
Virginia Beach-Norfolk, VA-NC (23) (36) (59)
Washington, DC-VA-MD-WV 26 (160) (134)
TOTAL (2,230) 1,792 (438)
New York central counties are New York City
Single county metropolitan areas excluded (San Diego, Las Vegas & Tucson)
Derived from US Census Bureau Data