In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Urban Sustainability
March 18, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 1

Megaregions and Mobility

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Author: Catherine L. Ross and Myungje Woo

Planning on the “megaregion” level can ensure the connectivity of major metropolitan areas.

Globalization, the accumulation of production, commodity trading, and finance capital on a global scale, is being accelerated by advances in communication and mobility (Douglass, 2000). In a globalized world, economic, trade, and mobility systems are closely linked and interdependent. However, globalization also produces winners and losers, not only among nations, but also among regions.

Although trade relationships are based on global networks, the origins and destinations of global interactions are concentrated in specific agglomerated regions called “megaregions.” These new economic and geographic units, which have arisen in the past few decades, are “networks of metropolitan centers and their areas of influence” that have developed social, environmental, economic, and infrastructure relationships (Ross and Woo, 2009). Thus megaregions extend beyond metropolitan areas, sometimes beyond state lines, as more and more people and economic activities are concentrated there.

Most megaregions are connected cities and surrounding areas with populations of 10 million or more. In the United States, the 10 largest mega-regions (seven of which have populations of more than 10 million) represent 80 percent of U.S. economic activity. By 2050, the U.S. population is projected to increase by another 130 million people, which will undoubtedly increase the populations of existing megaregions and could very well lead to the emergence of new ones.

Megaregions, which provide focal points for global connections to existing and emerging markets of opportunity, require planning across jurisdictional borders for everything from parks to ports. They are logical geographical and economic units for planning the construction and expansion of 21st century transportation systems. Investments in transportation connectivity and other improvements in and among megaregions are crucial to economic growth (Meyer, 2007). However, as megaregions expand, they must contend with intense traffic congestion, increasing pressures on the natural environment, resource constraints, and existing institutional and governmental boundaries.

Spatial Planning and Investment in Transportation Infrastructure in Other Countries

A cursory examination of spatial planning and transportation infrastructure investment in other countries shows the benefits of planning on the mega-region scale: prioritizing infrastructure investment; sharing transport infrastructure; and diversifying and expanding economic activities (Glaeser, 2007; Sassen, 2007). Megaregion-scale transportation and infrastructure that includes all geographic areas within its borders can have significant economic, social, and mobility benefits.

Planning at the megaregional scale can improve the efficiency of freight and passenger transportation and high-speed/intercity rail; highways and concurrency; land use and green infrastructure planning on a multi-jurisdictional scale; accessibility to U.S. economic centers and global markets; management of natural resources and the environment; preparations for responding to natural disasters and other events that are not confined to political boundaries; mitigations and adaptations to climate change; and the creation of new revenue streams to improve mobility in corridors critical to economic success.

Megaregions in Transportation Planning

An expanding spatial footprint is typical of the sprawling development patterns in and around U.S. metropolitan areas, and urban functions and service delivery systems are increasingly becoming the province of non-urban areas, such as suburbs and exurbs (Lang and Dhavale, 2005). Transportation networks, particularly highways, are frequently considered contributors to urban sprawl, because they enable people and businesses to move to and serve rural areas, which then become part of the “larger” metropolitan area. Clusters of these metropolitan areas along inter-metropolitan corridors (typically interstate highways) create new megaregions. Thus transportation planning on the megaregional scale seems logical and appropriate.

Sustainable, livable megaregions require intra- and inter-urban access and mobility coordinated with public transportation, land use planning, and other critical public and private development and investment activities (Banerjee, 2009). Planning at the scale of the megaregion should ensure the inter-connectivity of major metropolitan areas and increase the economic competitiveness of the region.

Europeans are dealing with many of the same issues—expanding and changing urban structures that are outgrowing traditional jurisdictional boundaries and a rapidly globalizing marketplace in which an entire region becomes a single economic entity (Salet et al., 2003). These issues have intensified with the creation and expansion of the European Union (EU). “City-regions,” areas that are not limited to the boundaries of local authorities, are “the new and emerging sub-national scalar focal point and territorial fix for the global capitalist economy” (Harrison, 2007). In the United Kingdom (UK) city-regions were the planning units for the Sustainable Communities Plan for the South East, a project to improve the region’s economic competitiveness.

Another primary concept in European spatial planning is polycentric development (Meijers, 2008), which, according to the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), stimulates economic progress and better territorial planning. In the EU, polycentricism is credited for creating “multi-growth centers” across Europe, and polycentric regions are believed to eliminate the social and environmental disparities of monocentric cities and to be better equipped to contribute to global competitiveness. Asia and Europe have also created Global Integration Zones by linking major economic nodes with separate high-speed rail systems for moving people and goods.

In the new international division of labor, production processes are being moved from developed countries to developing countries in Asia and Latin America where low-cost labor pools are available. In this scenario, it is important for a country not only to secure air and overseas networks, but also to develop and maintain infrastructure that ensures the efficient movement of trade goods within the country and efficient connectivity to global markets and emerging opportunities.

At the same time, interactions of higher order functions, such as financial transactions and information flows, are increasingly concentrated in networks linking world cities. Salet et al. (2003) suggest that “regional economies have become more dependent on their position in global networks than on the traditional powers and investments of local industries and local entrepreneurs.” The “regional economies” of megaregions are at the heart of these changes, because globalization requires a physical geography of regions with transportation networks and communication linkages (Douglass, 2000), and most world cities are located in megaregions.

The success of an economy depends on attracting global investment. As competition among regions has increased, infrastructure, efficient mobility systems, labor supply for higher order functions, reliable energy supply, and facilities that can support world events have become crucial factors in luring investors (Douglass, 2000). Although U.S. megaregions are relatively well equipped with infrastructure when compared to non-megaregions in the country, international competition for global investment is creating strong incentives for improving their performance.

World megaregions are home to significant portions of national populations and account for a large proportion of a country’s productivity (Florida et al., 2007). In the United States, megaregions accommodate more than 76 percent of the total population and employment (Table 1), even though they occupy only 30 percent of the total area of the country. In 2008, megaregions accounted for more than 80 percent of the nation’s gross regional products.

TABLE 1   Comparison of Major Variables in Megaregions and Non-megaregions

  Geographical Area
Population (2008) Employment (2008) Gross Regional
Product (2008)
Fortune 500
Revenue (2008)
Patents (1999)
Megaregion 29.60% 76.54% 76.98% 81.47% 92.07% 86.77%
Non-megaregion 70.40% 23.46% 23.02% 18.53% 7.93% 13.23%
Source: Ross et al. (2009a).

In terms of globalization and innovation, the headquarters of 92 percent of Fortune 500 companies (based on revenues) were located in megaregions. In 1999, more than 86 percent of U.S. patents were issued in 10 megaregions (Ross et al., 2009a). Because mega-regions are expected to continue to grow faster than the rest of the country in terms of population and productivity, it is critical that we develop an effective infrastructure plan to mitigate negative externalities resulting from that growth and to ensure the competitiveness of these regions.

Functional Megaregions

Researchers are focusing much more attention on identifying, defining, and integrating megaregions (Florida et al., 2007). By overlapping population and geographic criteria with other characteristics, including cultural, environmental, and transportation networks, and projecting increases in population, Lang and Nelson (2009) identified eight megaregions, and the Regional Plan Association (2006) identified 11 emerging megaregions in the United States. However, these and other studies have focused on agglomerations of population and employment rather than on functional and operational characteristics. In addition, their methodologies have tended to rely on descriptive analyses and global information system (GIS) mapping rather than on economic relationships within and among regions.

Figure 1

Recently, Ross et al. (2009a) delineated 10 mega-regions using a mathematical model to measure functional relationships in terms of commodity flows (Figure 1). The delineation included three stages: (1) identification of metro regions with core areas and their areas of influence; (2) identification of functional regions and measurements of interactions among regions; and (3) delineation of megaregional boundaries with proximity and contiguity conditions.

  • Stage 1: Delineation of a metro region. Mega-regions are based on combinations of cores and areas of influence, called “metro regions.” A metro region includes: (1) an agglomerated, globalized, highly productive, and innovative core area and (2) economic areas, called areas of influence, that support the functions of the core area. The core area and its areas of influence are also defined by shared characteristics, such as history, culture, and environment. Metro regions are evaluated according to five criteria—agglomeration, productivity, globalization, innovation, and infrastructure—and 29 variables.
  • Stage 2: Delineation of functional regions. In previous studies, megaregions were defined as clusters of metropolitan statistical areas based on proximity. In this study, functional regions are constructed, using a Markov chain model and cluster analysis, not only according to physical proximity, but also based on functional relationships measured by commodity flows among regions. A functional region is composed of clusters of metro regions based on these interactions.
  • Stage 3: Delineation of megaregions. Megaregions are delineated based on contiguity, proximity, and local and regional characteristics. Thus, a mega-region is a functional region in which the components are (1) physically and functionally interconnected and (2) interact with each other via certain types of networks.

Two theoretical considerations embedded in this analysis have significant implications for transportation systems. First, every megaregion is related to internal mobility in metro regions. Sassen (2007) suggests that megaregions are large enough to contain multiple levels of agglomeration economies—from higher order functions, such as “specialized advanced corporate settings,” to modest and lower order functions, such as “suburban office parks and regional labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing.”

Second, functional relationships between metro regions, which are the core of analysis in the identification of functional regions, were measured by the origins and destinations of commodity flows, that is, data that characterize a high volume of freight movements in the megaregion. Although megaregions vary in size, natural environments, major industries, and existing infrastructure and mobility, they clearly warrant higher priority for investment in transportation infrastructure.

Megaregions and Mobility

Travel by Car, Rail, and Air

Recent trends in travel clearly reveal the need for new investment in transportation infrastructure. For example, a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled by private cars in the United States in the last few decades has resulted in longer average personal trips, lower vehicle occupancy rates, and longer commutes. In addition, travel alternatives, such as transit services and non-motorized travel facilities, are either insufficient or not available at all.

Trucking accounts for approximately 66 percent (in millions of dollars) of total domestic commodity movements, generating enormous amounts of greenhouse gases and consuming enormous amounts of energy. Megaregions are more dependent on trucks than other areas. For example, in 2002, more than 77 percent of commodities were moved from megaregions to domestic destinations by truck, and the percentage is projected to increase to approximately 80 percent by 2035 (Table 2).

TABLE 2   Transportation Modes for Exporting Goods to Domestic Destinations from Megaregions and Non-megaregions

  Megaregion Non-Megaregion
Transportation Modes 2002 (%) 2035 (%) 2002 (%) 2034 (%)
Air and Truck 0.02 0.04 0.01 0.02
Pipeline and Unknown 14.01 11.97 25.74 26.03
Rail 4.45 4.56 13.34 13.09
Truck 77.16 80.23 56.36 57.02
Others 4.34 3.19 4.55 3.83
Source: Derived from the Freight Analysis Framework Commodity Origin-Destination Database (FHWA, 2006).

Only 4 to 5 percent of freight in megaregions is transported by rail, compared to 13 percent in non-megaregions. In addition, export commodities in megaregions are estimated to increase by 134 percent and imported goods by 124 percent, by 2035, most of which will require transport by truck (Ross et al., 2009b). These numbers may go even higher in the next few years as construction to enlarge the Panama Canal continues.

Air travel at major airports, most of which are located in megaregions (Figure 2), are subject to increasing delays and higher costs to passengers, which may indirectly affect the relative costs of moving passengers and freight along the highway system. These trends are expected to continue, or even worsen, in the near future.

Figure 2

New Mobility Systems

To relieve traffic congestion in major corridors in megaregions, mobility systems should be based on alternative modes of transportation and combinations of different modes and technologies. Several potential high-speed rail (HSR) corridors were designated under Section 1010 of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act and Transportation Equity Act-21. In 2007, the Passenger Rail Working Group, created by Congress, developed a plan for an intercity passenger rail network by 2050. More than 63 percent of the proposed routes for HSR services include corridors that cross state lines (Schwieterman and Scheidt, 2007). In addition, many corridors are divided into segments to accommodate differences in ownership and operations.

With the announcement of new rail initiatives in 2010 and the allocation of $8 billion in federal funds as a “down payment,” the federal government has made a substantial commitment to the development of HSR, thus signaling a new direction in U.S. rail history. Although most of the proposed HSR routes are located in megaregions, the funding allocations are still based on state lines (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Given the trends in population and economic growth and the current condition of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the federal government should (1) continue to encourage the implementation of HSR to improve mobility, environmental conditions, and regional economic growth and connectivity and ensure the integration of transit in long-range and regional policies; (2) invest in improving and expanding the freight rail system to support functional relationships between regions and reduce congestion on critical highway corridors; (3) continue collaborative efforts and initiatives by local, state, and regional bodies to mitigate congestion and establish regional policies that encourage coordination in planning and investment in multi-jurisdictional passenger mobility systems.

Lessons learned by experience in European and Asian countries could help guide U.S. infrastructure investment toward more sustainable infrastructure and transportation systems. Working from a megaregional framework will make coordination and progress toward these goals easier to achieve.

Mitigating and/or Adapting to Climate Change

The megaregion is an ideal scale for assessing climate change and air quality on a “super” regional level. The intensity of the environmental impacts of climate change is expected to vary by region throughout the United States, with sub-continental divisions corresponding closely to the geography of several mega-regions. To be most effective, mitigation and adaptation responses in transportation systems should be planned for these climatologically distinct zones and should be tailored to the expected impacts and particular classes of infrastructure in each megaregion.


At the highest level of competition, the United States needs public policies and infrastructure planning that can reshape existing and emerging megaregions into world-level competitive regions, both economically and in terms of mobility systems. Currently, the country is not organized in a way that can lead to effective planning and implementation of new systems within and between megaregions.

Given limited resources, it is crucial that we understand the interactions of economic and transportation needs as a basis for prioritizing investment. We will need more coordination by planners on all levels for new passenger and freight mobility systems that relieve congestion and enhance economic competitiveness and sustainability.

To attain these goals, public policies and investments in national infrastructure systems must be considered through a new, innovative lens—a megaregional framework—that links local, state, and multistate jurisdictions. Megaregions are also an appropriate scale for managing a national transportation system, the skeletal foundation of the nation’s economy and the global economy.


This article is based partly on a 2009 project, Mega-regions and Transportation Planning, Catherine L. Ross, Principal Investigator, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.


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About the Author:Catherine L. Ross is Harry West Professor and director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Institute of Technology. Myungje Woo is a research scientist at the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Institute of Technology.