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An Enhanced Urban/Rural Classification System for U.S. Census Geographies


The Decennial Census urban classification is determined primarily by population density and is binary in nature – either a place is urban or it is not. This does not always reflect the realities of the demographic landscape where cities have degrees of density and the transition from urban to rural can happen gradually. Additionally, the availability of land use and facilities data sets both at a local and national level means that an urban designation does not need to rely solely on population density. While the current Census methodology takes into account connectivity in urban areas, there is an opportunity to create an urban/rural classification that encompasses a higher level of “ground truth” than has been available previously. A more refined urban/rural classification scheme would allow transportation practitioners to make better decisions on facility placement, administration classifications, development zones, and metropolitan planning organization (MPO) boundaries. The 2010 Decennial Census includes several geographic products that include a designation of urban vs. rural, notably the urbanized areas and the P2 (Urban and Rural for the total population) and H2 (Urban and Rural for housing units) Census tables. These designations are used extensively throughout the transportation community. State highway departments use the urban/rural designation to populate the HPMS and functional classification for road centerlines. MPO boundaries are based on urbanized areas. The urban classification is used in travel demand models and in studying development patterns for when deciding where to fund transportation projects.


The purpose of this research is to create a new methodology for creating a block-level Census urban/rural designation that incorporates varying degrees of urban characteristics and utilizes a variety of geospatial and demographic sources for making this determination. Population density along with land use (LULC) data, road density, and other sources are some of the possibilities. The resulting data set would not be a binary urban/rural designation but a measure by degrees or multiple classifications that would give planners and transportation officials a more nuanced view of development in their area. A single state or region would be selected as a pilot to demonstrate the implementation of the new methodology.

Sponsoring Committee:AED20, Urban Transportation Data and Information Systems
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Mara Kaminowitz and Clara Reschovsky
Source Info:ABJ30(1) and CTPP Program
Date Posted:12/28/2016
Date Modified:04/20/2018
Index Terms:Census, Urban areas, Rural areas, Classification, Demographics, Population density,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Data and Information Technology
Planning and Forecasting
Transportation (General)

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