Get out of town!
September 23, 2005 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I keep hearing that Houston is the fourth largest city in America, along with the Hurricane Rita stories on the television. Wikipedia says it's 8th. I assume that the discrepancy is because the TV anchors are using area vs. population. Is Houston more sprawl-y than, say, DC?

Notice that the populations of the two Metropolitan areas are similar. Can any part of the problem that people are having evacuating Houston be attributed to sprawl? Or is just bad infrastructure? It appears that the interstates leaving Houston are pretty large.

I live in the DC area, and the interstates (395, 495, 95, 66) here aren't even designed well enough to carry typical rush hour traffic on any given day.

Given what we've seen in Houston, are all the cities larger or more populous than Houston in trouble if a mandatory evacuation is necessary? Or is there something about Houston?
posted by clearlynuts to Technology (12 answers total)
Houston is the fourth largest city. The Wikipedia page you point to is about metropolitan areas, which is probably a more relevant measurements in most cases, but different nonetheless.
posted by grouse at 7:01 AM on September 23, 2005

They're not basing it on area, but on the population of the city itself, rather than on the city and its surrounding metropolitan area. Here's InfoPlease's list. They probably should use the statistics for the metropolitan area, because it's not as though the city's residents are the only ones evacuating, but there you go.

So the answer to your first question, whether Houston is more sprawl-y than DC, is no. This is evidenced by the fact that the population of the city of Houston is almost four times that of the city of Washington, DC.

The answer to your second question, whether all the large cities are in trouble if a mandatory evacuation is necessary, is yes. Of course they are, because no city is built to allow its residents to leave all at the same time. I also live in the DC area, though, and I suspect we'd be OK with decent warning, because as long as we were all trying to get away from the city, and they opened up the inbound lanes to outbound traffic on 95, 66, 270, etc., it would be horrible and slow but probably not as bad as in Houston.

I vote for not finding out anytime soon.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:05 AM on September 23, 2005

This is evidenced by the fact that the population of the city of Houston is almost four times that of the city of Washington, DC.

I'm not sure what the raw population has to do with, rather than, say, population density. My understanding is that Houston aggressively annexes nearby land, mostly for tax purposes. That probably has the effect of consolidating more of the population in Houston city limits than in comparably sized metropolitan regions, but I don't think it does anything to make it less sprawl-y. It could have the reverse effect, if people who want to live in suburbs really want to live in suburbs, and forced further out as Houston expands.

As for the substance of your question, I think sprawl might make it easier to evacuate, since the population is dispersed and more likely car-equipped. I don't know anything about Houston's infrastructure, though. This is just idle speculation on my part.
posted by claxton6 at 7:14 AM on September 23, 2005

The city is always different than the metropolitan area. Houston is the 4th biggest city, yet only the 7th largest metropolitan area according to 2000 US census data. Each city within the metropolitan area may have different requirements for evacuations. Sprawl is a big factor in evacuations as well as the availability of various transportation modes.
posted by JJ86 at 7:21 AM on September 23, 2005

Let's go to the numbers (sorry the Census Bureau seems to be down right now) shall we?

Houston City: rank - 4th; population - 1,630,553; square miles - 539.9; population per square mile - 3,020

Washington, DC: rank - 92nd; population - 606,900; square miles - 61.4; population per square mile - 9,883

Yes, Houston is far more sprawled than DC, three times as much as a matter of fact. The metro area, maybe not, but the city itself, yes.

On top of this, Houston sits with no physical obstructions to evacuation on most sides (except, obviously the ocean side) while most of DC sits on a point between rivers (essentially extensions of the bay) that have very few and narrow bridges (not to mention the huge trough of Rock Creek further impeding Westward movement). While evacuation in Houston would not be fun or easy, compared to DC it would be a more simple proposition.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:41 AM on September 23, 2005

Is metro Houston sprawlier than metro DC?

Yeah, at least it was in 1990. The DC/MD/VA MSA had a population density of 989/mi2, but Houston only had a density of 620/mi2. The density for the Houston/Galveston/Brazoria CMSA, maybe a better comparison to the DC MSA, is only 522/mi2.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:58 AM on September 23, 2005

Macho macho chicken, I don't think that comparing population densities of the city limits tells you much. Houston city includes an awful lot of Houston metro, but DC proper has only a small percentage (12% or so) of the DC area's population.

The hard part of evacuating DC proper would probably have more to do with DC proper's population mostly being poor and carless. And black, and so more likely to be ignored and denied services.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:04 AM on September 23, 2005

Many different ways to slice-n-dice the data, but it all comes down to Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), approximately. It's essentially a grouping of communities that are "anchored" by a large metro area; each of the "subordinate" communities (cities, towns) is part of the larger metro area, and the entire MSA is basically considered one single "super city."

My favorite example is San Antonio versus Dallas, in Texas. San Antonio just loves to crow that it is 8th largest city in America, with 1,236K people. Compare that to Dallas, which has slightly fewer residents: 1,210K. No one in their right mind, however, would ever believe that "San Antonio" is larger than "Dallas" -- because Dallas adjoins Fort Worth, Arlington, Garland, and several other large cities/communities...these communities are part-n-parcel of Dallas, and the reason that the entire area is usually referred to simply as "Dallas-Ft Worth," or "DFW," or simply "The Metroplex." The entire area is one huge cite, basically. San Antonio, on the other hand, has very, very few adjoining communities.

So when the two metropolitan areas are viewed in that light, here is how it turns out:

"Dallas/Ft Worth" : approx 4.9M - 5.5M, ranked somewhere between #5 and #8 in America

"San Antonio" : approx 1,7M ranked somewhere between #28 and #35

Huge difference. HUGE. Probably won't see San Antonio billing itself as the "30th Largest City In America!" Good resource over at Wikipedia.
posted by davidmsc at 8:45 AM on September 23, 2005

The problem is how you define "city." Every locality has a complex set of laws that define what is and is not part of a city, but it doesn't make sense from a sociological point of view to respect those rigid rules. For example, Washington DC has a population of 606,900 only if you decide to exclude the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Legally, those communities have nothing to do with DC, but practically, they are integral parts of a larger metro area. Include them, and the population is accurately counted somewhere in the millions. Include Baltimore and the vast tracts of urban sprawl between DC and Baltimore, and it's even higher.

Similarly, looking at this high-PageRanked list of the world's biggest cities, you will notice that they count Tokyo and Yokohama as two different cities. Legally that's proper, but in reality those two cities are essentially adjacent to each other, and viewing the entire mess from the air you wouldn't be able to tell where one begins and the other ends. Add the two cities together, and the Tokyo-Yokohama megalopolis would be larger than the #1 city on that list.
posted by profwhat at 8:54 AM on September 23, 2005

Best answer: To answer the actual question, rather than arguing about city size: yes, Houston is experiencing problems evacuating because of its sprawl. The city already has serious traffic problems because much of its population lives in so-called "edge cities," and commutes every day to jobs inside the city limits. Like LA, Houston is now learning that simply adding more lanes to a freeway does not a traffic solution make.

Further, beacuse of Katrina-induced panic, many people in inland suburbs that are not part of the mandatory evacuation (Katy, Kingwood, Sugarland) are leaving town as well. Because of geography, this effectively puts the people from the coastal areas in the "back of the line," traffic-wise.
posted by deadfather at 9:04 AM on September 23, 2005

Just to clarify my last paragraph, people that live in the coastal areas (mandatory evacuation zone) must drive through the inland suburbs in order to evacuate. As people in these inland suburbs continue to evacuate voluntarily, they jump on the freeway and create a continuous, hellish backup behind them--which has yet to go away, really.

Add that to the fact that the farther away you get from Houston, the smaller and narrower the freeways get, and you start to understand what's going on.
posted by deadfather at 9:17 AM on September 23, 2005

When I lived in Baltimore, I always loved the debate about whether or not the DC/Baltimore area should be considered a single metropolitan area, stretching from NoVa all the way up to the northern 'burbs of Maryland. DC people seemed to think it made sense. Baltimore people hated the idea.
posted by marcusb at 11:45 AM on September 23, 2005

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