America's Dispersing Metros: The 2020 Population Estimates


The big story among the nation’s major metropolitan areas (the now 51 of 55 over one million with more than one county) over the past decade has been the persistence of urban core out-migration and suburban in-migration.

The Nearly 5,000,000 Suburban Net Domestic Migration Advantage

Over the past 10 years, the net domestic migration (people movement from one county to another) into suburban counties has exceeded that of urban core counties by 4.7 million residents. The core counties have lost 2.7 million net domestic migrants, while the suburban counties have gained 2.0 million. Contrary to popular myth, there is no data to show that net domestic migration to the core counties has ever been greater than to the suburban counties in this century. As this decade has evolved, the suburban domestic migration gap has expanded to an average of nearly 700,000 in the last four years, compared to the first two years, when the gap was less than 200,000 (Figure).

The suburban gains are evident even in the fastest growing major metropolitan areas.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, core Dallas County lost 85,000 net domestic migrants over the past decade, while the suburban counties gained 585,000.

In Houston, core Harris County lost 82,000 net domestic migrants over the past decade, while the suburban counties gained 362,000.

Nashville’s core Davidson County lost 8,000 net domestic migrants, while suburban counties gained 183,000.

Even in fastest growing major metro Austin, two-thirds of the net domestic migration was to suburban counties, (234,000) rather than to core Travis County (113,000), which is home to more than 55% of the population.

In fast growing Charlotte, core Mecklenburg County — 42% of the metro — gained 72,000 net domestic migrants, while the suburbs added 186,000.

In Seattle, core King County, with 55% of the current population, gained 47,000 net domestic migrants, while the suburban counties gained 100,000.

In Portland, core Multnomah County, with one-third of the population, gained 20,000 net domestic migrants, while the suburban counties gained 108,000.

Even where there were large overall losses, suburban counties did better generally than core counties. In New York, the five-county core city of New York lost 1,035,000 net domestic migrants, while in the suburban counties, with nearly 60 percent of the population spread over three states, the loss was 605,000.

In Los Angeles, the core county and largest county in the nation, Los Angeles lost 745,000 net domestic migrants, while the adjacent suburban county (Orange) lost 105,000. This is despite the fact that Orange County is 30% as large as Los Angeles County.

In Chicago, core Cook County lost 494,000 net domestic migrants, while suburban counties lost 214,000, considerably less than their 45% population share.

Population Highlights: Metros Over 5,000,000

Dallas-Fort Worth gained the highest percentage, at 20.9% and most new residents, at 1.3 million residents, to reach 7.7 million. In the process, fourth-ranked Dallas-Fort Worth reduced the lead of third ranked Chicago from 3.0 million 1.7 million.

Houston had the second largest gain, at 1.2 million, with a 20.8% increase, despite a drop in growth during the oil market decline. Houston remains the fifth largest metro.

Phoenix passed the 5,000,000 mark, having grown 20.7% from the 2010 census to 2020 and added 900,000 residents. Phoenix ranks 10th, having passed Boston, San Francisco, Riverside-San Bernardino and Detroit during the decade.

Chicago was the only over 5,000,000 metro to have suffered a loss during the decade (54,000). But it seems now to have some company. All three largest metros lost during 2019-20. New York and Los Angeles declined by 0.6%, while Chicago lost 0.5%. Chicago, however, which appeared likely to reach megacity status (10 million) within a decade or so in 2010, may never get there, barring a further geographic expansion of the metropolitan area by adding additional counties.

Population Highlights: Metros From 1,000,000 to 5,000,000

The strongest growth among the 1,000,000 to 5,000,000 metros was in Austin, which gained 33.7%, also the largest percentage gain among the 55 metros over 1,900,000. There was also strong growth in Raleigh (25.6%), Orlando (23.7%), San Antonio (20.6%), Charlotte (19.6%), Nashville (19.1%), Jacksonville (18.0%).

Both San Francisco Bay Area major metros lost population over the past year, San Francisco, lost 0.6% and San Jose at 0.7%. In a New York Times analysis, Jed Kolko noted that San Jose had the third largest annual percentage loss in population among the metros with more than 500,000 population, with San Francisco having the fifth largest loss. After a comparatively strong rate of population growth in the early decade, San Francisco narrowly slipped behind much slower growing Los Angeles in the last year (minus 0.57% compared to minus 0.55%). By contrast, San Francisco grew 8.3% since 2010, while San Jose grew 7.3% respectively. Frequent population losers Pittsburgh (minus 0.4%) and Cleveland (minus 0.3%) suffered smaller 2019-2020 losses than the Bay Area metros.

Two metropolitan areas were added to the over 1,000,000 ranks in 2020, including Tulsa, which becomes Oklahoma’s second major metropolitan area and Fresno, which becomes California’s seventh and its third in the interior.

Honolulu, which seemed likely to reach 1,000,000, after creeping up to 993,000 in 2016, has since fallen back to 964,000. Major status could well elude the world’s largest mid-Pacific metro, and unlike Chicago, there is no prospect for adding additional counties, since Honolulu County occupies all of the island of Oahu.

Population Highlights: Metros From 500,000 to 1,000,000

Myrtle Beach, SC was the fastest growing metropolitan area between 500,000 and 1,000,000 population over the decade. At 36.6%, Myrtle Beach expanded fastest among the 111 metropolitan areas with more than 500,000 population.

There was also strong growth in Florida, with Cape Coral, gaining 27.8% and Lakeland (23.7%), sandwiched between Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg and now a part of the Orlando combined statistical area (CSA). Sarasota also gained 21.7%.

Mountain state metros also grew strongly. Provo, a part of the Salt Lake City CSA, gained 25.9%, while Boise slipped over 750,000, growing 24.9%.

Fayetteville, AR (549,000), home to the University of Arkansas, as well as behemoths Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt gained 24.7%, which must not be confused with virtually the same population Fayetteville, NC (529,000), which is also growing faster than average, at 10% for the decade.

Charleston, SC gained 23.3%.

America's Dispersing Metros

In his New York Times piece, Kolko notes that: “State decennial counts have diverged from previously published state estimates, illustrating limitations of estimates, but also raising concerns about the decennial count.”

But even when the final metropolitan area figures are in, the overall story is likely to be little changed. “The latest population estimates show that, even before the heightened dispersion that appears to have occurred during the pandemic, the suburban dispersion that really began about 1920, and has been heightened since 1945 continues apace and, contrary to conventional wisdom of the past decade, seem to have plenty of room to grow.

Population and Domestic migration results are summarized in the table below.

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: Bank of America Corporate Center in Charlotte, NC-SC, one of the nation’s faster growing metropolitan areas (by author).

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