The Math of Sprawl

I’m talking to a guy named Ted between sips of Virginia’s own Vienna Lager. I just met him about 10 minutes ago at the bar, and here he is already giving me the rundown on all the neighborhood bars in Richmond. He used to build McMansions – only “a couple“, he swears – and reminds me a bit of Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski a decade or two in the future. He’s got the beard and the chill stoner vibe.

“So wait now, where exactly do you guys live?” He asks.

“Like Midlothian,” Molly answers.

“All the way over there?”

“Well, we don’t really live in Midlothian. We’re near where the turnpike and the Powhite meet,” I say. I try to draw the intersection with my hands, but it doesn’t really work. He probably thinks I’m having a seizure.

“Oh, OK. I see. Out there? Wow, you guys are far!”

Far? I was 11 miles from home. 11 miles. In Detroit, that’s a drive around the block. In Richmond, that’s maybe a drive and a 1/2 around the block.

In Manhattan, drive north from Battery Park, and in 11 miles you’re in the heart of Harlem. A few more miles and you’re in the Bronx. Now that feels like a drive, but of course that’s a world class big city. Richmond and Detroit? Small fries.

The next morning, my head still woozy from complementary shots of Pucker, I decide a scientific comparison is in order. Richmond sprawl vs. Detroit sprawl. Here’s quick comparison of the urban areas of both metropolises:

Neither drawing is entirely accurate. Scale was attempted, proximity given the old college try. It works for illustrative purposes, I guess.


Note: The dots represent the historic centers of each distinct city, not the total area each encompasses. Also, that line cutting through the middle is the James River.


Another note: Me and Old Me aren’t hip cities, but rather my present and past homes. To be accurate, Metro Detroit is home to a few Old Mes, but I for simplicity’s sake I only singled out where I grew up.

Richmond, to clarify, has an urban area of 492 square miles. Detroit? A whopping square 1,337 miles. Richmond’s urban area is home to 953,556 people at density of 1,938 people per square mile. Detroit crams in 3,734,090 people at 2,793 people per square mile in its urban area.

OK, OK, fine, you’re thinking. But what the heck do those numbers mean on the ground?

Not much at first glance. Greater Richmond has an average commute time of about 25 minutes. Metro Detroit, for all its size, clocks in at about 26 minutes, almost identical. Over 80% drive to work alone in both areas, routinely tuning into gossip-driven radio shows on their stoic journeys to the land of fluorescent lights. Driving from the southernmost extent of the sprawl to the northernmost extent takes a little over an hour in either metro. All about average, really.

I did notice, however, that people in downtown Richmond and on through the West End have an average commute of less than 20 minutes. In Metro Detroit, only citizens of the postage-stamp-sized suburb of Huntington Woods enjoy an average commute that short. That suggests that job sprawl and decentralization isn’t quite as bad yet in Greater Richmond. Even an extreme east-west drive in Greater Richmond takes maybe 40 minutes, compared to close to an hour in Metro Detroit. And Richmonders spend only 29 stultifying hours a year stuck in traffic, 11 hours less than Detroiters.

For a “Baby Boomer” in the right neighborhood, it’s possible to not notice just how all-consuming the sprawl is Greater Richmond. But growth in the region has centered on the suburbs for decades. Though Richmond is on the upswing, so are its exurbs, a ‘roid raging evolution of the suburbs predicated on leased cars and mortgaged McMansions. From 2000 to 2010, the exurbs accounted for a third of Greater Richmond’s growth. Richmond itself? Less than 5%.

Most of Richmond’s population growth was in and around downtown. Outside that area, the march of suburban manifest destiny continued unabated. As seen all over the country – including Metro Detroit – we’re bifurcating into two different worlds, one urban, the other a complete rejection of it.

I’ll drink to that. Five shots of Bacardi 151, please.

And Ted thought Midlothian and Powhite was far…


7 thoughts on “The Math of Sprawl

  1. “…routinely tuning into gossip-driven radio shows on their stoic journeys to the land of fluorescent lights.” What a great observation and turn of a phrase.

    More, please?

  2. Thanks. I appreciate your continual kind words. I’ll try to deliver.

    Since switching over to an “Americana” theme, I’ve truly been writing into a vacuum. I never had a lot of readers, but now all of my traffic is just random Google searches. A pat on the back now and then makes it easier to keep going. I figure I’ll keep chasing my muse for as long as I can.

  3. Keep writing and don’t look back. I added a blogroll to my site and put you in there with the other blogs that make a point to follow. I hope it helps generate some interest in your direction.

  4. Exurbs can be cool, unique locations, though. They’re not just urban sprawl or suburban subdivisions, but old towns or areas with a history of their own, infused with population and a vibrancy from nearby urban centers. In short, exurbs have a much better “sense of place,” if you can excuse the cliche.

    Good post, though. I am a demographics dork at heart.

  5. Eh. . .I just looked up the definition of an exurb. Maybe I’m thinking of the wrong type of area. You once wrote that Fenton, MI is an exurb–which is an old town that has been recently gaining population and vibrancy–but maybe that doesn’t quite fit the true description.

    That’s the beauty of traveling: every area doesn’t conform to our handy definitions or preconceived notions.

  6. Calling Fenton an exurb is like calling Royal Oak a suburb. At the heart of both communities is a traditional settlement essentially engulfed by sprawl. Though I don’t know Fenton all that well, a quick search reveals that most of the development I’d consider “exurban” is actually in Fenton Township. Think sprawling McMansions populated by heavy-duty commuters.

    Now that I’ve given it more thought, exurban really is a sloppy term. It’s just a way to distinguish the latest generations of suburbs from what came before, I guess. The “X” stands for Xtreme.

  7. Also, I agree that sprawl can breath new life into small towns. Really, the only way for most small towns to thrive in the modern world is to get dragged into the orbit of a big metropolitan area. Certainly, in Metro Detroit, Plymouth, Northville, and Farmington stand out as examples of cities bolstered by sprawl. Rochester, too. Even New Baltimore. And that’s undeniably cool.

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