Metropolitan Sprawl

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More and more Americans are living in a gray zone-that is, an area that's neither densely nor sparsely populated. As a result, it is getting tougher to draw a clear boundary around a metropolitan area.

Changing work patterns are largely to blame. Telecommuting is becoming more common. Cross-regional commuting-from 'burb to 'burb -is supplanting travel to work in a central business district. Financial service companies are evolving into organizations with toll-free numbers, home pages, and post office boxes-but scant meaningful physical presence. The boom in commerce over the Internet will likely fuel these trends.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is in the process of establishing new standards to define metropolitan areas, the first revisions since 1990. In its "Alternative Approaches to Defining Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Areas Notice," issued in December, the OMB lays out the four options currently under consideration, noting that give-and-take will be required regardless of the method ultimately adopted. (nothing that involves counting Americans and delineating the areas in which they live comes easy.) A specific proposal likely will be offered for comment this summer. If adopted, the new standards would be applied to the 2000 Census, yielding a new list of metro areas by about 2002.

At this stage, it's impossible to predict which particular groups, institutions, or places will be hurt or helped by new standards, but the impact of the metro area redefinition process, in conjunction with the new census data, will be widespread. Federal and state allocations are made to communities based largely on their classification as being inside or outside a metro area. In the private sector, sales territories and quotas often are based on the federal designations. Considerable change in federal program allocations and initiatives and in business practices may ensue.

Existing OMB standards state that a metropolitan area "consists of a core area containing a large population nucleus, together with adjacent communities having a high degree of social and economic integration with that core." Counties are the basic building blocks of metro areas nationwide, except in New England, where they are configured somewhat differently. Inclusion of outlying counties is based largely on the propensity of their residents to commute into the central city.

The OMB is weighing three approaches that continue to base the metro area definition on commuting patterns, but depart from other criteria. One example proposes to build metro areas out of census tracts rather than counties. A fourth proposal uses population density as an indicator of the relative intensity of social and economic activity, rather than attempting to identify separate cores or to quantify relationships between a core and its outlying areas.

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