An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions

Garrett Dash Nelson

Affiliation Department of Geography and Society of Fellows, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, United States of America

Alasdair Rae

Affiliation Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom ORCID


The emergence in the United States of large-scale “megaregions” centered on major metropolitan areas is a phenomenon often taken for granted in both scholarly studies and popular accounts of contemporary economic geography. This paper uses a data set of more than 4,000,000 commuter flows as the basis for an empirical approach to the identification of such megaregions. We compare a method which uses a visual heuristic for understanding areal aggregation to a method which uses a computational partitioning algorithm, and we reflect upon the strengths and limitations of both. We discuss how choices about input parameters and scale of analysis can lead to different results, and stress the importance of comparing computational results with “common sense” interpretations of geographic coherence. The results provide a new perspective on the functional economic geography of the United States from a megaregion perspective, and shed light on the old geographic problem of the division of space into areal units.