Where exactly is the Front Range megaregion? Millions of commuters’ data gives us one visual answer.

A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)

Work is what binds us together — more specifically, the commute to work. That’s the theory that two researchers have used to tackle the tricky challenge of defining the Front Range and other “megaregions.”

A megaregion is a cluster of cities. To show the connection between those cities, the researchers crunched through U.S. Census data about millions of people’s commutes, turning it into a national map of how people travel to work.

Here’s Colorado:

A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States’ “megaregions.” (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)

The brighter lines represent a higher number of trips between two points, symbolizing the strength of the connection between the areas. As you might suspect, it’s a total free-for-all between Denver and Boulder. As you get out farther, to Cheyenne and Pueblo, those lines start getting thinner, and they branch deeper into rural areas.

This map also illustrates just how lonely the Front Range cities are. Other areas of the country are densely packed, one region against another, as you’ll see further down, while Denver is surrounded mostly by nothing. (Of course, a population map would show you that too.)

I also noticed that the Front Range connections bridge a relatively long distance, about 215 miles by car from Cheyenne down to Pueblo. On the East Coast, Charlotte and Raleigh are separated into two different regions despite being less than 200 miles apart — perhaps because they’re similar in size and influence, making it silly to drive from one to the other just for a job. In Colorado, meanwhile, Denver is the undisputed center.

The lower 48 states, overlaid with a map of millions of commutes. (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
The lower 48 states, overlaid with a map of millions of commutes. (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)

This might seem like pretty obvious stuff. If you’ve lived here long enough this map does nothing but confirm your suspicions. But I find it intriguing because it illustrates those intuitions so well — and with a new level of detail that could be useful to urban planners as transit better connects our cities, as this National Geographic story argues.

Of course, this is just one of many ways to try to interpret a subjective question, and it occasionally spits out some wonky results. For example, as Twitter user Mateo asked me, is southwestern Colorado really connected more to Albuquerque than to Denver? The transit data may say so, but that also ignores larger factors, such as, say…. both being in Colorado.

The researchers were Garrett Nelson of Dartmouth College and Alasdair Rae of the University of Sheffield, and they published all this in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Now, more maps:
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States’ “megaregions.” (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States’ “megaregions.” (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States’ “megaregions.” (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States' "megaregions." (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti "General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks" Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)
A map of millions of commutes shows the United States’ “megaregions.” (S. Sobolevsky, R. Campari, A. Belyi, and C. Ratti “General optimization technique for high-quality community detection in complex networks” Phys. Rev. E 90, 012811 2014)

If you want to look through a bunch more of these, they’re openly available.

Andrew Kenney

Author: Andrew Kenney

Andrew Kenney writes about public spaces, Denver phenomena and whatever else. He previously worked for six years as a reporter at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. His most prized possession is his collection of bizarre voicemail. Leave him one at 303-502-2803, or email akenney@denverite.com.