What makes a region, a region?

A frequent complaint of Consolidated Statistical Areas (CSAs) – a Census description explored in an earlier blog – is that they are so large they have little practical meaning. While “cities” have important political and socio-cultural identity implications, and metropolitan areas are especially important for broader economic reasons (demand and supply) as well as cultural ones (e.g. “I’m from the Bay area“), CSAs are frequently derided as pointless.

One commonly cited exception is the Bay Area. Technically, there are two metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the Bay Area: San Francisco/Oakland and San Jose (Silicon Valley). The Census combines the two MSAs into a single CSA and most people seem to think that’s appropriate because they have well-integrated infrastructure, overlapping labor markets, regional coordination, and a shared identity.

Critics say practically all other CSAs, fall into two easily dismissed categories:

  • Meaningless because they merely add a few far-flung communities in the metropolitan hinterland (e.g. Chicago’s CSA is only 4% bigger than its MSA)
  • Meaningless because they merge two completely distinct MSAs that shouldn’t be merged (e.g. Washington and Baltimore).

But let’s unpack that second category by comparing the Bay Area CSA to the Washington-Baltimore CSA on a few metrics that one might reasonably assume are CSA qualifiers:

Criterion Bay Area CSA

(pop. 8,751,807)

Balto.-Wash. CSA

(pop. 9,665,892)

Adjacent and geographic-ally consolidated MSAs are adjacent.

Combined area: 10,135 sq. miles

Distance from SF to San Jose: 48.4 miles.

MSAs are adjacent.

Combined area: 11,954 sq. miles

Distance from Baltimore to DC: 38.3 miles

Both CSAs sprawl but their core areas are relatively adjacent and much more compact.
Integrated transportation infrastruc-ture They don’t directly share an airport although SFO is the undisputed busiest within the CSA, drawing San Jose users. The commuter rail network, CalTrain is frequent and includes off-peak bi-directional trains. A BART  (San Francisco’s suburban heavy rail network) extension will reach San Jose in the next few years. Frequent commuter buses between the two. In addition to sharing an airport (Baltimore-Washington International is the busiest airport within the two MSAs), they have an integrated transportation network with MARC providing frequent commuter rail and off-peak bi-directional trains. Frequent commuter buses between the two. The transit cards of each system is usable on the other. Both CSAs have internally linked and mutually dependent transportation networks.
Integrated labor markets (source: commuting data from American Community Survey) About 8.7% of workers in the CSA live in one MSA and work in the other (total of 253,700 workers). About 5.5% of workers in the CSA live in one MSA and work in the other (total of 234,895 workers). For each CSA, about a quarter million people live in one MSA but commute to the other every day, representing an overlapping labor market.
Regional Coordination Leaders from both MSAs have cooperated in the past on policy goals of mutual interest (e.g. housing), and there have been calls for improved business coordination. However, no permanent forum exists for regional cooperation between the two. In addition to transit coordination (Maryland in one partner in DC’s mass transit system), various partnerships occur across the two MSAs. For example, the DC and Baltimore MSAs submitted a joint bid for the Olympics. No permanent forum exists for regional cooperation between the two. No large region in the U.S. really does this well but both CSAs exhibit some degrees of coordination, perhaps more so in the Balto-Wash CSA where the State of Maryland has at times helped convene.
Social identity There is a strong pop cultural recognition of a single “Bay Area”, typically tied to features such as mild pleasant weather, expensive real estate, and the thriving tech industry. However, there is strong variation within the CSA, within distinct communities and cultures. Baltimore and Washington developed over a couple centuries as neighboring but distinct cities. Over the years, this divide, between white collar Washington and blue collar Baltimore has faded, and there has been cultural cross-pollination throughout, but there remain lingering differences in perception and reality. This is a very subjective measure but arguably one of the most important when deciding what feels like an “area.” While there is some common identity between Baltimore and DC (especially among Marylanders), the Bay Area certainly has a more clearly integrated identity, at least in popular perception.