Skip to content U.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway AdministrationU.S. Department of Transportation/Federal Highway Administration

Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
Planning · Environment · Real Estate

HEP Events Guidance Publications Glossary Awards Contacts

Megaregions: Literature Review of the Implications for U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Transportation Planning

Executive Summary

A. Research Background

More than 50 years ago, French geographer Jean Gottmann (1957) suggested a newly emerging urban form, calling it megalopolis, which was characterized by economic continuation of metropolitan areas. He then posed several questions:

How did Megalopolis happen to arise and with such a shape? What are the present main functions of this area, its role within the American economy? What are the present problems of internal organizations, and what solutions have been attempted? (Gottmann, 1957)

As planners and policy makers face contemporary issues - infrastructure degradation, natural resource limitations and an economic environment more dependent on global trade - it is not surprising that similar questions are still being asked. While the terminology has changed from "megalopolis" to "megaregion", the underlying concept remains the same. Economic, environmental and human forces are creating large polycentric agglomerations of urbanization that spill over current political boundaries.

Approximately nine additional megaregions have emerged or begun to emerge across the country since Gottmann suggested the idea of the megalopolis in the northeast region (Lang and Dhavale, 2005; Regional Plan Association, 2006). As a result, spirited discussions of this concept have been ongoing in the academy and in media, business, and political circles.

Why are megaregions so important now? Megaregions are geographic areas that will contain two-thirds of the nation's population by the middle of the 21st century (Amekudzi, Thomas-Mobley, Ross 2007) and represent a new and potentially fruitful context for American transportation planning and other decision making related to social and economic development. These regions are characterized as networks of metropolitan centers and their surrounding areas, connected by existing environmental, economic, and infrastructure relationships. As megaregions expand and continue to attract significant amounts of the country's population, economic activity, and global connections, they struggle with intense traffic congestion, pressures on the natural environment, resource constraints, and other negative externalities associated with rapid urban growth. Given continued growth, the emerging question is how American planners, elected officials, and policy makers should structure transportation and infrastructure investment in order to address the particular challenges and opportunities presented by megaregions.

Historically, multi-state transportation and infrastructure planning has been difficult to accomplish in the American political context, partly due to the lack of multistate leadership, overlapping roles between multistate organizations and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and funding problems (Cambridge Systematics, 2005). However, an examination of international urban development and transportation infrastructure investment shows the benefits of such inter-jurisdictional approaches, which can include specializing infrastructure investment, sharing transport infrastructure, and diversifying economic activities (Glaeser, 2007; Sassen, 2007). Extending transportation and infrastructure planning at the scale of the megaregion could thus lead to significant benefits for the included areas. The megaregion planning framework in the United States has the potential to preserve and enhance the quality of life and economic vitality of its most populous and dynamic geographic areas, as well as to compete with megaregions already engaging in polycentric approaches to transportation planning in Europe and Asia.

Back to Top

B. Report Organization

This report explores the practical implications of megaregions with respect to infrastructure investment and transportation planning by reviewing literature from several disciplines, as well as previous and current research on megaregions. This review provides a basis of knowledge of the current state of thinking on megaregion planning, both in the United States and abroad, and a fuller understanding of opportunities and challenges from the viewpoint of the practitioner, the academic, and the policy maker. The review focuses on existing and historic planning practice in the United States and infrastructure provision beyond the metropolitan scale and spatial planning in the European Union and Asia. In the case of foreign nations where population agglomeration in dense urban areas has led to spatial planning at the megaregion scale, the report gives an overview of the decision-making structure employed; the relevant performance of the region in economic development, environmental quality and social equity; the history of megaregion planning institutions; and the local, regional and global contexts, in terms of governance and policy. We also analyze current and historic multi-state planning efforts in the United States from both a functional and a legal perspective.

Specifically, Section II explores the literature on regionalism, spatial planning, economic geography, governance, and globalization to inform the development of the megaregions framework. It concludes with examples of historic and current regional boundary delineation methods. Section III provides examples of regional policy and planning actions in the United States, followed by the documentation and examination of megaregional studies and research activities both in the United States and abroad. Section IV draws conclusions from the body of literature and case studies examined in this report to frame the next steps in the examination of megaregions for transportation planning, policy, and operations in the United States.

Updated: 09/19/2013
HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000