Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.
Sources of emigration to the Washington metropolitan area.

by James A. Bacon

The U.S. Census Bureau has released inter-metropolitan migration data based on its 2009-2013 American Community Survey, and Luke Juday at the Stat Chat blog has created a tool allowing people to visualize the origins and destinations of people coming and leaving each metropolitan area. The results for Virginia’s metros, though hardly surprising, are nonetheless intriguing. Showing the linkages between metros, I would suggest, shows how inter-connected they are by ties of family, friends, education and business.

The Washington metropolitan linkages are, strongest by far with the major cities of the Northeastern megalopolis, particularly Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, but the region does have fairly strong ties to Virginia, including Richmond, Hampton Roads, Blacksburg and Charlottesville as well. Washington’s ties to states south of Virginia are tenuous. Only Atlanta registers as an important node for back and forth movement.

The net immigration, not shown in the maps but displayed in the table below, also is revealing. New York, Boston and Phillie send far more people to Washington than they receive in return. But Washington exports people to Virginia — Richmond at the top of the list, followed by Blacksburg and Charlottesville. One suspects there is a strong university connection with Blacksburg and Charlottesville. The steady leakage of people from Washington to Richmond is an interesting phenomenon worth digging into.


The Richmond story is marked by strong linkages with the other metros in Virginia. While its total migration numbers are smaller than those of Washington, a metropolitan region five times its size, they are larger as a percentage of the population. The situation is reversed for movement between Richmond and New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia; there is less movement than between Washington and those metros, even on a population-adjusted basis.

Sources of immigration to Richmond
Sources of immigration to Richmond

Richmond is a net exporter of population to Blacksburg and Harrisonburg, college towns, and a large importer from Washington, Norfolk and New York.

The one big surprise in this data: There was far less movement between Richmond and North Carolina metros than I expected. In my personal experience, Richmond is full of Tarheels (including my wife). I guess that anecdotal information doesn’t count for much.


I did not have time to develop comparable profiles for other Virginia metros, but if readers are inclined to do so, I would be happy to publish their analysis.

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  1. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I, too, am a little shocked that there isn’t a stronger connection between Raleigh and Richmond.

  2. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Here’s an interesting question on the Richmond data: Why are more Richmonders moving to Roanoke than Roanokers moving to Richmond?

    Roanoke doesn’t have a higher ed institution comparable to VCU (thus, you’d think the higher ed moves would be slanted towards Richmond). The Richmond area has more high-paying jobs. I’m at a bit of a loss to figure that out. I would have assumed Roanoke’s numbers would be comparable to Lynchburg when it comes to Richmond migration.

  3. Hamilton Lombard Avatar
    Hamilton Lombard

    I know margins of error aren’t sexy, but if you look at them for this data they cover nearly all the net-migration. Which means that in the case of Roanoke there were just as likely more people moving from there to Richmond than from Richmond to it. With such high margins of error we don’t know.

    If you look at IRS migration data it generally shows net out-migration from Roanoke to Richmond in the past few years.

    1. Bless you for bringing a dollop of statistical sense to the comments section of BaconsRebellion.

    2. Cville Resident Avatar
      Cville Resident

      Thanks. I had a hunch that those numbers didn’t seem to jibe with economic reality.

    3. LarrytheG Avatar

      good point and confirms my own skepticism on how data is sliced and diced now days. I say trust but verify – find other data to validate it (like the IRS migration data).

      but on this – I’m not really sure what it means in the first place… because there are different reasons for migration and we do end up – speculating as to what the reasons are – rather than have them confirmed with validating data.

  4. Let me see if I can summarize …

    1. More people come to a place from big cities than from small towns or rural areas.

    2. More people come to a place from nearby places than far away places.

  5. DonR, is your #1 just because there are more to draw from in a big city than a small town or rural area?

    In addition to total migration headcount I wonder if the percentages of overall population track the overall numbers.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      yes… do the migration patterns track the actual census population gains, losses…

    2. Yes, the reason there are more people coming to Washington from Georgia than perhaps expected is because Atlanta is a big city. There are people from which to draw. The large red dot in western Georgia confirms this.

      “Richmond is a net exporter of population to Blacksburg and Harrisonburg, college towns, and a large importer from Washington, Norfolk and New York.”

      I don’t believe there is any particular affinity between New York and Richmond. As a regular visitor to the Big Apple I can say that when I tell people I live in Virginia nobody asks me about Richmond. There is a lot of migration because there area lot of people in New York.

      Jim starts to get under the covers of this situation when he talks about population adjusted migration. I think you have to adjust for population and distance and then look for anomalies. For example, the largest red dot on the Washington map is Baltimore. From a population perspective Baltimore is a tier 2 city but its proximity to DC makes it a more important source of migration than its population would imply. I also have to wonder where the boundary lies between Charm City and The Nation’s Capital. I have the feeling that you wouldn’t have to mover very far around Columbia, MD to become an inter-city migrant.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think if you take the college migration out – or separate it from non-college – you’d have more to work with.

    the out migration to colleges is not particularly relevant I do not think – especially if it is an annual thing as seniors graduate and go to their jobs and freshmen show up … from – wherever.

    what exactly is one expecting to learn from the migration patterns?

  7. “The steady leakage of people from Washington to Richmond is an interesting phenomenon worth digging into.”
    My bet would be that most of those coming into Richmond are in their mid-late 20’s to early thirties seeking a more affordable place to live. Living near DC is incredibly more expensive than the Richmond area and Richmond provides most of the same lifestyle choices for people in that age group.
    Unless your livelihood is tied to the current administration in DC, the move is a no-brainer.

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